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Follow The Leader In You

08/18/2016 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey

Gallery: Leader in Me [4 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Amanda Jean Elliott

In Acadiana, more than 16,500 elementary and middle school students are benefiting from a life-changing program. It’s changing students. It’s changing their outlook. It’s changing classrooms. It’s changing test scores. One mayor even says it’s changing his city. And it doesn’t have anything to do with academics in a traditional way.

The Leader in Me program, based on Stephen Covey’s wildly popular book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” has been implemented at 29 area schools thanks to United Way of Acadiana with more on the way. In fact, the organization aims to have it in every interested school in the area by 2020.

According to UWA,  “The Leader in Me is a school-wide process that transforms the culture of the school and instills students with the key skills that businesses and educators have identified as vital for success in the 21st Century: Leadership, Accountability, Adaptability, Initiative & Self Direction, Cross-Cultural Skills, Responsibility, Problem-Solving, Communication, Creativity and Teamwork.”

While most of these sound like lofty goals — maybe even above the heads of elementary school kids — and hard to quantify, the beauty of The Leader in Me is that the program by its nature is far more than ideals and platitudes. It is embedded with a timeline and it’s producing real results. 

“Our school ended up with its highest math scores ever in spring 2014,” says Kim Cummins, Martin Petitjean Elementary School Principal in Rayne. “Our students were at 82 percent proficiency after using a very tough curriculum aligned with common core state standards. They performed better in math than in any other area. I attribute this to their self-confidence and their ability to think on a higher level thanks to The Leader in Me. They feel proud and capable.”

At Carencro Heights Elementary the iLEAP score for third graders in math jumped from 33 to 47 while at Ernest Gallet Elementary the fourth grade iLEAP score increased in math from 75 to 82 while reading went from 78 to 90. At Ross Elementary School iLEAP scores in math for fourth grade increased from 78 to 85 and reading jumped from 68 to 75. 

So, what is The Leader in Me and how does it work in practice?

According to United Way, schools using “The Leader in Me integrate leadership development throughout their daily curriculum, activities, systems and faculty and staff development.”

According to Cummins, the entire program taps into the leadership potential of kids.

“What makes it so magical is that it’s built into everything we do,” she says.

And according to United Way the results are clear, “this creates an environment where everyone in the school — from students to teachers to administrators — is encouraged to set meaningful goals, using data to track progress toward achieving those goals. Data tracking in and of itself is an essential application of mathematics and science and it is integrated into daily student activity. Each student maintains his own data notebook, as a record of his own aspirations and achievements.”

Cummins says when you trust in kids and you give them responsibility and the tools to be effective leaders they will make it happen.

Teacher Heather Hanks at Martin Petitjean sees the difference it makes in the school. And beyond. “They become more responsible citizens not only in the schools. But at home as well,” she says.

And it’s a sentiment that the community leaders echo as well.

“The leader in me has helped the city,” Roland Boudreaux, Rayne Mayor says. “These kids are going to be our leaders of tomorrow because they are our future.”

According to the United Way, “The Leader in Me sch ools emphasize posing and solving problems, whether it is on the playground as part of a class team or solving math problems individually as presented in the lesson.”

Not only do students set goals and timelines, they are finding a new kind of confidence as they actually reach these goals, which give them that extra boost to reach even higher, according to teachers like Ashley Hawkins of Martin Petitjean. 

“It encourages students to push their limits and do things they didn’t’ think they could do before now finding out ‘I have that in me,’” Hawkins says.

The beauty of The Leader in Me is that it’s customized for each child. Even children who may not normally rise to the top or seem to have leadership skills are finding their place thanks to The Leader in Me. And they are passing it on to other students as well.

“At a Leader in Me school, no matter what a child’s talent, we find their strength and we celebrate it through leadership,” Cummins says.

Martin Petitjean and the dozens of schools in Acadiana using The Leader in Me are not alone. The program is a national effort to shift school culture and help children and community succeed together.

It began with a principal at a North Carolina school who was grappling with a failing school. Muriel Summers chose leadership as her school’s theme based on community input and approached Covey as a partner to create a model for her school, which drew on his famous book and incorporated tools and educational practices from other sources. Within just a few years that failing school had a complete turn around and was named the county’s number one magnet school.

Today the program aims to shift the mindset of leaders in the school as well as students to shift the entire school culture. For example the paradigm of leadership shift from “leadership is for the few” to “everyone can be a leader” and from “a few people are gifted” to “everyone is a genius.” Instead of “to improve schools the system needs to change” the thought is that “change starts with me.” Rather than educators controlling and directing, they empower students to lead their own learning. And in lieu of helping students just achieve in academics, it’s about developing the whole person.

In the words of that first principal who launched the program in North Carolina: “We only get one chance to prepare children for a world none of us can possibly predict, what are we going to do with that one chance?” The official launch of The Leader in Me was in 2009 and since then more than 2,000 schools of all kinds (public, private, charter, magnet) across 35 countries have adopted the process.

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