CHESTERTON — It didn't take too much time for the youngsters in Jason Conway's fourth-grade class at Liberty Elementary School to think about the term "being a leader" and about how they exhibited that character trait.  

One said, "I'm a leader because I know how to put first things first." Another said, "I'm a leader because I always help others."

Liberty fourth-grader Marlee Wilson said she thinks the new school program is great, because it teaches students how to be leaders. 

"I'm a cheerleader," she said. "I encourage my cheermates and give them advice on stuff. I'd also like to be a special helper at school. Right now, we have D.O.G. (Daily Organization Binder) books. I make sure the books get signed and everyone has their book out when they are supposed to. When I grow up, I want to be president."

Fourth-grader Aiden McConnell said he plays baseball and floor hockey and is a leader on his teams. "I encourage my team to do better and I cheer them on when they feel down. I also help the coach. I want to be a professional hockey player or baseball player," he said. 

Liberty and Bailly elementary schools in the Duneland School Corp. have joined more than 2,000 schools across the world that have become Leader in Me schools. 

Prepping for 21st-century leadership

The Leader in Me schools are based on the work of educators and authors Franklin and Stephen Covey. It is based on a transformation process teaching 21st century leadership skills to students and creating a culture of student empowerment, equipping students with the confidence and skills to reach their potential.

Bailly Principal Kevin Zack said he was looking for a paradigm, a change, to support teacher leaders and stumbled across the program at a conference. Zack said a representative from the program later came and spoke to principals, a step in becoming a Leader in Me school. 

Zack and Liberty Principal Christy Jarka piloted the program last year, and the 2016-17 school year is the first year of implementation. 

Jarka said it includes every member of the school staff, including custodians, cafeteria staff and secretaries. 

Leader in Me schools also create a common language within a school by teaching students Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," also the name of his book. The seven habits are: Be proactive; have a plan; first things first meaning work first, then play; think like a winner; listen before you talk; synergize; and balance feels best. 

Liberty's Conway said he thought the training sessions were very reflective.

"It made you take a look at your own life and how you could make changes in your life first before beginning to instill change in our students," he said.

"It's a change in lifestyle for us here at Liberty. If we can internalize that and make the change in who we are, it will be easier to show our students how the change is beneficial and more authentic, as opposed to us just saying, do this."

Building a foundation

Bailly kindergarten teacher Michelle Mercon said she learned how to live the seven habits and to integrate the habits into the classroom with a focus on finding the leader in each child.

She said she wants her students to believe in themselves and have confidence.

"I want them to develop leadership qualities that will not only improve school performance, but empower them to be in charge of their happiness and success throughout their lives," she said.

"In kindergarten, we put a strong emphasis on routines and procedures at the beginning of the year, so I have only begun to slowly introduce common language and concepts that have related to situations we have encountered so far," Mercon said.

"We will build on this throughout the year with stories, goal-setting, sharing and leadership opportunities to prepare a foundation for the future lessons in other grades," she said.

Jarka said it always comes back to the students and how administrators and teachers can help the children realize there is a leader in each of them.  

Parent Beth Mehling, who has two children, including a second-grader at Liberty, said it's a great idea not just for students but anyone.

"It's a way of looking at and treating people differently and looking at situations differently," she said. "I think it's a great foundation for students to grow up and be successful."

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Education reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.