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Hiller Elementary’s leadership experiment paying off

Students showcase principles learned through ‘The Leader in Me’

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published April 8, 2015

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MADISON HEIGHTS — Ever since they became an official “Leader in Me” school last fall, Hiller Elementary in the Lamphere district has been training its kids to be leaders. One doesn’t usually think of K-5 students as assessing a situation and finding mutually beneficial solutions, but that’s what school officials have been seeing.

Hiller Principal Jen Cumiskey has plenty of examples to share.

“In the lunchroom, I heard one group say they were able to play together peacefully by using the habits, thinking ‘win-win’ when one wanted to play tag and the other wanted to play on the swings,” Cumiskey said. “They agreed amongst themselves to spend half of recess doing one thing and half doing the other.”

The “habits” to which Cumiskey referred are “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” a concept coined by best-selling author Stephen R. Covey. He wrote a book of the same name, as well as “The Leader in Me,” after which the school’s initiative is named.

Backed by Title I federal funding, the “Leader in Me” initiative is facilitated by Franklin Covey, Stephen Covey’s organization. It’s a holistic approach to teaching leadership that involves all levels of the school — students, teachers, custodial staff, administration and more — as well as the community at large, encouraging parents and guardians to do their part in reinforcing the habits. 

The seven habits include:

• “Be proactive”: Do the right thing, even when no one is watching.

• “Begin with the end in mind”: Always plan ahead.

• “First things first”: Prioritize the work to be done.

• “Think win-win”: Help everyone to benefit.

• “Seek to understand, then to be understood”: Listen before you talk.

• “Synergize”: Cooperate with others.

• “Sharpen the saw”: Live in balance, with proper eating, exercise, etc.    

The school was ready to show the community how well the students have learned these habits during an event planned for April 1, after press time, with students giving presentations, singing songs, and holding meet-and-greets in each of the classrooms, open house-style.

The fact that they can trust the students to handle this is the result of an ongoing dialogue with the students about what it means to be a leader. This dialogue takes place both inside and outside the classroom. Leadership concepts are incorporated into the curriculum, and the proper tone is set by motivational displays throughout the school, and even message-driven music that plays as the children line up at the start of each day.

Of course, putting the message into action is another matter entirely. This can be seen in the Student Lighthouse Leaders, a steering committee for leadership-oriented activities that is entirely run by students. The teachers merely oversee the proceedings, letting the students brainstorm their own ideas for improving their school and the community. For example, they helped raise funds for the Madison Heights Animal Shelter and collect cans for the Knights of Columbus.

Lindsay Staskowski, a reading specialist at Hiller and one half of the duo overseeing the Student Lighthouse Leaders, said it’s been a “transforming” experience for the kids.

“The students handle problems on their own more before bringing in an adult. They try to handle issues they have on their own, and they’re good about being responsible for their actions, talking about how when they get home, they have to do ‘first things first’ before they can play,” Staskowski said. “It really is amazing. Using ‘The Leader in Me,’ the children gain confidence, mutual respect and decision-making skills, as well as other lifelong skills. It helps them to be successful in school and their everyday life.”

Hiller staff underwent special training last summer to prepare for the initiative, with follow-up training in the fall. Franklin Covey has assigned Hiller a separate coach to work with them throughout the year to support the school’s efforts. Lamphere Administration has also pledged its full support.

“I’ve had kids approach me, asking if they can do specific leadership jobs around the school, like talking about ways to help the school remember the environment is important,” Cumiskey said. “These kids feel empowered to make decisions, even the quieter ones. It’s been incredible to see them shine this way.”

Hiller Elementary is located at 400 E. La Salle Ave. in Madison Heights, and can be reached by calling (248) 589-0406.

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