By Scott Jennings
The atmosphere of learning and respect belies the statistics that might otherwise stereotype the place.
Bright hallways. Happy children learning in well-organized settings. Engaged, motivated teachers in control of their classrooms with no outward discipline issues bogging down the day. Lots of eye contact, good manners, and polite handshakes from the tiny greeters welcoming you to their school.
Such is the scene at Warren Elementary School in Bowling Green, Kentucky, a place where 93 percent of the children are on free or reduced lunch and more than 26 languages are spoken. One in five kids speak English as a second language.
Warren County is home to perhaps the most diverse schools in Kentucky because of the International Center headquartered there, which has resettled over 10,000 refugees since its founding in 1981. If you throw a bunch of underprivileged kids, many of whom speak little or no English, in a public school, test scores suffer and discipline issues sprout, derailing attempts to create a culture of learning.
A possible solution to these challenges in Bowling Green came not from government but rather from private sector leaders, who stepped in with an idea and the money to try something different.
In 2009, the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce decided to raise private funds for a program called “Leader in Me.” The program is not an academic curriculum, but rather a values-based overlay based on the book The7 Habits of Highly Effective People, written by the late Stephen Covey. The “Leader in Me” website describes it as “a whole-school transformation model that acts like the operating system of a computer” designed to “improve the performance of all other programs.”
The program is ubiquitous in Warren Elementary. Posters on the walls reinforce the habits. Teachers ask students to read stories and discuss the habits that various characters applied to situations. Children, on command, perform a song that lists the habits.
The “Leader in Me” is omnipresent, and it appears to be working.
“Self-motivation to achieve goals has dramatically improve our school culture, which has included academics and behavior,” Warren Elementary principal Josh Porter tells me. He adds definitively that the “Leader in Me” program “made a drastic improvement in our students.”
A reasonable explanation for the reduction in discipline issues is that kids are learning a positive framework for living their lives that they might not be getting at home. I talked to one young boy who told me both of his parents were dead, and that he was being raised by his aunt. I learned later that the boy’s father had died from complications due to alcoholism; his mother died shortly thereafter of a drug overdose.
The kid had his act together. He walked me through his student binder, a well-organized collection of his studies and yearly goals (he had lofty reading plans). This young man had all the excuses anyone would need to give up and become a bad statistic, but that clearly wasn’t happening. He believed in himself and his school; he’s now on a path that a future employer will appreciate.
“That kid gets a sense of self-worth and pride and structure that he’s not getting in the home today, or the one he came from,” according to Craig Browning, Regional President of U.S. Bank in Bowling Green. Browning is one of the local business leaders that pulled together $1.4 million in private donations to implement “Leader in Me” across the Warren County Public Schools and the Bowling Green Independent School District, which together have 29 schools serving 18-thousand children.
The payoff, Browning says, will come in six to twelve years when Warren County begins graduating workforce-ready students who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks, victims of bad circumstances not of their making.
“Without the support of the Chamber of Commerce and their work with the business community…we would not be where we are today with the implementation of [the program] in both school districts,” says Joe Tinius, Superintendent of the Bowling Green Independent School District.
In a world where communities search for better answers on how to fix failing schools and how to better prepare our workforce, the partnership between an engaged local business community and a receptive public school system should become a model for other districts.
But while students in Bowling Green are lucky to live in a place with forward-looking business leaders willing to invest in the future, a public policy dilemma is how to deliver this kind of programming to schools that lack a comparably robust private sector. Over 80 percent of Kentucky school districts have a majority of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, and in many of those counties the school board itself is the largest employer.
Warren County’s experiment should become a point of interest for Kentucky’s gubernatorial candidates, whose platforms should contain large planks dedicated to education innovation and workforce development. Like many issues facing the next governor, it’s a question of creativity and funding, a tough nut this state is always trying to crack.
This column originally appeared in the Courier-Journal on August 26, 2014.
Scott Jennings is a former advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. He toured Warren Elementary as a member of the Leadership Kentucky 2014 class.