Rykers’ Ridge Elementary School students cheer after learning that the school received a $40,000 grant for “Leader in Me” program training and implementation. (Staff photos by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
Rykers’ Ridge Elementary School students cheer after learning that the school received a $40,000 grant for “Leader in Me” program training and implementation. (Staff photos by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
Rykers' Ridge Elementary School fifth-graders this year learned the characteristics required to be a strong leader.

The children regularly greeted one another at the front door with a warm "hello" and handshake, took the helm during morning announcements and even learned the difference between proactive and reaction behavior.

The change is part of the Leader In Me model, an initiative focused on teaching children leadership, successful behaviors and accountability. The hope is that those skills later translate to higher education and then the business world.

"We wanted to improve 21st Century skills. We wanted to provide something for you guys to get ready for the future," Principal Missy Demaree told her students during a school-wide assembly on Thursday.

Next year, those Leader In Me principles will be practiced by every Rykers' Ridge student, as well as the faculty and staff, thanks to a hefty grant awarded to the school.

The grant, worth nearly $40,000 over the next five years, is from the I Am a Leader Foundation, a private grant-making charity focused on building students' character and leadership skills. The money primarily covers training expenses.

There are only 1,650 schools in the world that have achieved the Leader In Me status.

The system was developed from Stephen Covey's best-selling book, "7 Habits of Highly Effective People." The book was adapted numerous times for various demographics and was eventually developed into an initiative for schools.

Demaree said the school had been searching for a new behavioral model to adopt when it found Leader In Me, a program used in Kentucky schools.

Teachers Amy Perkins and Ann Motenko were instrumental in the switch. The group began writing and acquiring grants to launch the initiative.

Leader In Me focuses on seven habits: Be proactive; begin with the end in mind; think win-win; put first things first; seek first to understand then to be understood; synergize; and sharpen the saw.

The students crafted a song to help them remember all of the seven habits.

Demaree said the system fits right in with Madison Consolidated Schools programs, adding that the school received support from the corporation before moving forward.

Rykers' Ridge first received grants from the Madison Education Foundation ($500) and Women's Giving Circle ($1,700). As Leader In Me was slowly implemented with the fifth-grade class, the changes in the students came almost immediately.

"As we incorporated the changes, the students thrived. They became excited and the staff began noticing the changes," Demaree said.

Motenko and Perkins said they were amazed how quickly students began picking up the vocabulary. They both heard children tell stories using "win-win" scenarios or examples of "proactive behavior."

In addition to identifying those principles, students also are encouraged to think for themselves. Motenko said that goes with the Leader In Me theory of teachers switching from "sage on the stage to guide on the side."

Only a portion of the students studied the Leader In Me model this year, but it will become a school-wide approach next year, and that includes the teachers and staff.

Training begins next week, the start of summer break.

Demaree said Leader In Me translates to higher academic achievement - test scores increase by about 10 percent - fewer discipline problems and increased engagement among parents and teachers.

With the five-year program, the school could achieve a Lighthouse status, which has been given to just 92 of the Leader In Me schools.