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Leader in Me program grows future leaders, school enrollment

BY GENEVIEVE POSTLETHWAIT gpostlethwait@paducahsun.com

A

year ago, Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" was just a best-selling book that teachers and students in western Kentucky may or may not have heard about.

Today, however, it's at the heart of a culture shift taking shape at area middle schools now in their second year of the Leader In Me program based on Covey's "Seven Habits."

Education regularly sees new programs come and go, but local educators had a feeling from the start that Leader In Me was different. Their hunch appears to have been a good one.

"We started to see positive changes right out of the gate last year," said Stacey Overlin, principal at Paducah Middle.

Grades improved. Behavior referrals dropped by almost 60 percent. Student fights were nearly eliminated, and for the first time ever, Paducah Middle had the highest attendance in the school district for the year.

Enrollment is also at an all-time high, which Overlin said shows that more local families are choosing Paducah Middle.

Administrators even had to make a waiting list for their sixth grade class.

Paducah is one of nine area schools working with the Leader In Me program, thanks to a federal School Transformation Grant secured by the West Kentucky Educational Cooperative last year.

Drawing on Covey's "Seven Habits," the program seeks to empower students and reduce bullying through teaching them 21st century leadership and life skills.

The area's other Leader In Me schools are Ballard County, Crittenden County, Dawson Springs, Fulton County, Hickman County, Livingston County, Mayfield and McLean County.

Though Leader In Me is still relatively new, it's rooted in research that's made the rounds of the business community for decades. In 1976, Covey began pouring through hundreds of books, articles and biographies of respected individuals in America's history to find common traits and behaviors that led to their success. He then wrote "Seven Habits," which has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.

The idea of Leader in Me is that these habits, based on "timeless and universal principles," aren't just for business professionals. In fact, they might be even more useful for middle school students.

Independence, collaborative spirit and desire for continuous improvement are valuable traits to develop at any age, after all.

"It's helped create a culture of learning and leadership," said Terrin Hayes, school counselor at Livingston Middle. "It instills life-long character traits that extend beyond the classroom. We had a wonderful group of seventh graders last year to begin the program with. We are so excited to see how they grow as eighth graders and help us transform future leaders. We are hoping parents are seeing the results of the Leader in Me program at home as well."

Things are going so well with Leader In Me at Livingston Middle that they're now a "touring school," Hayes said. The program has sent other schools interested Leader In Me to Livingston Middle to see the benefits of the program for themselves.

Overlin predicted that the program's impact on Paducah Middle and the other area schools will continue to grow.

Paducah Middle spent its first year with the program integrating the Leader In Me concepts into its classrooms and daily routines, and building its student and teacher "Lighthouse Teams." This year students will start keeping "Leadership Notebooks" in which they'll regularly write down their personal goals, document their progress, and reflect on their successes and chances for improvement.

By the end of the year, Overlin said, he hopes to be hosting student-led conferences, a twist on the traditional parent-teacher conference. Students will present their own progress and learning to the adults.

"Research has shown that when students are truly in charge of their own learning, you see one of the very largest effect sizes on student learning, so we are really excited about empowering the students with this process," Overlin said.

"This program really does apply to every student," he continued.

"It can be just as powerful to students who make straight A's as it is to those who are struggling. The principles of the Seven Habits are helping our students in areas much wider than reading and math. Of course we want the Leader In Me to help with academic achievement. But if we really get this right, our kids will have the skills to succeed in life."

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