"Last year I was scared to raise my hand or talk in class, but then my family group leader changed everything." —Kyle Boyer, 6th grader at Jefferson Elementary School
Confidence transforms people—and the staff at Jefferson Elementary School is witnessing this after two years of a unique leadership program called Family Groups. This program not only gives kids individualized attention and encouragement from older peers, but also shows kids their teachers believe in their abilities.
Every 6th grader is the leader of a family group. Each family group has at least one child from every grade represented. Groups meet once or twice a month to read books, do crafts, and volunteer in the community. The staff opted to start the leadership program two years ago to fulfill a two-fold purpose:
To inspire and equip students as leaders through direct instruction in leadership practices.
To give students hands on opportunities to practice and develop the habits of enriching the lives of others
WHY? According to 5th grade teacher Scott McClintock, "We've got a lot of weak leaders in our world right now, and we need to train up kids to be good leaders who look for the good of others.
Former principal and current Chief Academic Officer David Robertson adds, "We wanted to teach kids that sometimes a leader isn't someone up front, but rather someone playing his role within a group. I really feel passionate about the fact that teamwork, collaboration, effective communication, and empathy for others are important skills for success in any field they make pursue as adults."
HOW: 540 kids are divided into 58 groups that meet once or twice a month. Activities include reading books together, carving pumpkins into story characters, making turkeys and valentines for Grace Village Retirement Community, having family Christmas dinners, a community cleanup day, planting a tree for Arbor Day, field day, and more.
Teachers oversee two to three groups at their assigned meeting places. Librarian Mona Steiner, who is in charge of group crafts, said, "We don't give a lot of instruction. Instructions are put in the bag, but the kids do it themselves."
The staff truly believes that leadership is important for the kids to learn and they are seeing inspiring results. New Principal Kyle Carter states, "We don't always realize the power we have to make a difference in someone else's life. Our family groups give us the opportunity to help our students see this potential."
RESULTS: "It's so cool to watch kids who don't seem like leaders. Some of the kids who are in trouble a lot end up being incredible leaders—and they just love it. When you give them responsibility for something that matters, they are totally different kids." —David Robertson
"There are some kids who don't think they can do it, but we help build them and give them the skills to lead. Your natural leaders stand out. But there may be other kids who could be leaders with just a little guidance." — 5th grade teacher Jamie Gill
"WHEN YOU GIVE THEM RESPONSIBILITY FOR SOMETHING THAT MATTERS, THEY ARE TOTALLY DIFFERENT KIDS
IMPACT: Whether it is 6th grade girls meeting kindergartners on the bus and taking them to breakfast, or 5th graders learning to step up and write on the board, the program's impact is obvious:
Kids learn to pursue their dreams. As PE teacher Sandra Monce says, "Leading gives kids confidence."
Compassion and empathy are fostered. "I have seen it in my 5th grade class. We don't even have to ask, we start a project and kids get up and help each other—and that didn't happen before." —Scott McClintock
Discipline opportunities are created. When someone made a poor choice, Robertson took it as a learning opportunity. He would say, "Let's think about how this effects you as a leader, and the kids in your group." It put leadership issues into a real-life situation for the kids.
Kids apply new knowledge. Some leaders have special needs or difficult children in their groups. It opens their minds to see not everyone is the same, and it's okay to be friends with someone who is different. Leaders must try to find ways to include everyone and meet them where they are.
A caring family atmosphere is experienced. "We don't know what these kids come from. By doing these family groups, we are showing them what family can be. We want them to realize a family is a group of people that cares about each other and wants to help each other." —Mona Steiner
Lasting values and relationships are built. Kids will already know older students when they advance to middle and high school. The values learned will last beyond elementary. Last year at Lakeview Middle School, seven of the eight Students of the Month had been in one of these family groups. "We know we are not only creating close bonds between students at each grade level, but we are doing so in a way that builds leadership potential while enriching lives."—Kyle Carter
Staff is energized to inspire and equip all students. "Schools can be stressful places, but the family program was totally re-energizing for several staff members. They were like new people. So much today is about test scores, but the leadership families at Jefferson are what people feel school should be about, and when you give teachers the opportunities to do that, it reminds them why they became teachers in the first place—David Robertson
Clearly the program is building the potential for success in its students, an investment they may never have received if it weren't for Jefferson Elementary School. As David Robertson put it, "Some of these kids will never have the opportunity to be a leader if we don't give them that chance."