On June 1, visitors to Jefferson School in Union Twp., Union County were greeted at the door by the smiling face of a future graphic designer.
Inside, guests were escorted by future chefs, doctors, veterinarians, and actors to the cafeteria for a delicious breakfast. They mingled with current police officers, teachers, administrators, writers, politicians, firefighters, and more, who had been invited to participate in a day celebrating The Leader in Me, a multi-year program that highlights the importance of problem-solving skills, positive thinking, creativity and innovation, multitasking, initiative, cultural sensitivity, teamwork, empathy, accepting responsibility, communication, and professional manners.
Along the way, students and staff transformed their school and saw fewer discipline problems, improved academic achievement, a culture of respect and appreciation, and improved student responsibility, accountability, and leadership skills.
“Leadership Day is an annual event where Jefferson School opens their doors to the community for one day to showcase the amazing transformation that takes place within our building for students and staff,” said Kelly Piano, the Leader In Me facilitator for the school. “Students demonstrate their leadership skills, staff share the students’ successes, and the leadership philosophy driving the culture of the school is evident. We have always had a positive school climate, but embracing this program allowed us to transform into something that is really special.”
Jefferson Elementary School’s principal, Laura Damato, attended a Leadership Day at a school in Elizabeth, NJ, and was motivated to adopt the Leader In Me program at Jefferson.
The staff and students continue to impress me every day,” Damato said. “The Leader in Me has given us a system by which to empower the children. This was only possible because the entire staff trusted and embraced the process. Empowered teachers and empowered students are what give me “Principal Goosebumps” everyday as I walk around the building. The empowerment of our staff and students is the true success.”
Damato and Piano have worked closely to lead the process, which is evident in the climate of the building and the mutual trust, respect, and encouragement found among students and staff. The school has a core Lighthouse Team who facilitate the various committees and the teachers are part of sub-committees. They all lead side by side as they work toward the school-wide vision of empowering leaders.
Jefferson is a one-year school for all fifth grade students in Union Twp. Each year, educators teach a new group of students the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and instill lifelong leadership skills into their daily lives. With support from Damato, the teachers start off slowly, building to the end of the year program that showcases all that the students have learned. This process gives the teachers a chance to prepare the students to be responsible, motivated, creative, and problem solvers.
Those habits are:
Following breakfast and a video presentation highlighting some of the year’s activities, the day’s young hosts led guests to a club and activity fair. Every one of the clubs is student-led, and students were on hand to provide thoughtful explanations of the work they had done, their goals for the club or activity, and how it tied in to the seven habits the Leader in Me emphasizes.
Following the activity fair, groups were escorted to classrooms where they visited with students and observed them work on projects. The students have obviously internalized the seven habits and often referred to them in order to successfully accomplish their group tasks.
The culminating activity showcased students’ artistic skills. Two talented masters of ceremony introduced performances by a drum circle, ukulele and violin band, the full school chorus, and a remarkable pianist, songwriter, and singer who will no doubt one day be the owner of several Grammy Awards.
Ann Margaret Shannon, the president of the Union Twp. Education Association, was an enthusiastic participant in the day’s activities.
“It’s powerful to see how motivated, engaged, and confident Jefferson’s students are,” Shannon said. “The students and staff have worked together to create a truly remarkable school climate.”
Union Twp. Mayor Suzette Cavadas was one of the invited guests. “I am very impressed with the leadership program at Jefferson. It is so much more than teaching the children to be leaders. It teaches them the importance of making the right decisions, how to make the right decisions, to be respectful and the importance of kindness. These are skills that will help them throughout their entire lifetime. Next year, my son will be attending Jefferson and I look forward to him learning some of these characteristics which will help him throughout his life.”
NJEA staff, including NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Director Michael Cohan, a resident of Union Twp., was impressed by the work the students and staff had put in.
“With so much emphasis on what’s wrong in education, people lose sight of all that is going right,” Cohan said. “Union Twp. should be a statewide model. They have empowered staff to unlock students’ innate leadership skills through character education and respect. You cannot argue with their results.”
Jefferson Elementary School has been part of the Leader in Me process for three years, and this past June, they were globally recognized as reaching Lighthouse status. Although there are 3,681 schools in the Leader in Me process, only 424 are Lighthouse Schools in the world. “We are so proud of all of our students and staff for their dedication and hard work, and are excited to be recognized globally for our accomplishment”, stated Kelly Piano.
The Leader in Me teaches 21st century leadership and life skills to students and creates a culture of student empowerment based on the idea that every child can be a leader.
For more information about The Leader in Me, go to www.theleaderinme.org.
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