Learning (and Teaching) Leadership in the Early Grades

Between the world’s largest building (by volume) where Boeing assembles airplanes and the Mukilteo ferry where you can catch a ride to Whidbey Island is a remarkable elementary school where learners become young leaders.
Eight years ago, Mukilteo Elementary School adopted FranklinCovey’s The Leader in Me program, which aims to support a culture of student empowerment based on the idea that every child can be a leader.
“We were a good school but saw disengaged learners. We wanted to go from good to great,” said dean of students, Cheryl Tousley.
They applied for a grant from I Am A Leader Foundation. Their support required 100% staff support–which they secured after discussing the program with the school community. The Leader in Me is fully integrated in the life of the school, “It is powerful as a common language,” said Cheryl.
Developing Leaders Who S.O.A.R. is the school’s mission statement and SOAR is the acronym  for their adaptation of the program. There is a version of this for the classroom (below) lunchroom, hallways, gym, etc. — and acts a as a great example of the shared language that is used throughout the school.

The culture of leadership starts at the classroom door where every child is greeted with a handshake each day. In Kindergarten, character strengths are incorporated into songs. “By intermediate grades, it can’t be cutesy,” says fifth grade teacher Sue Idso. “It has to be integrated into everything.”
“We process behavior through the language of leadership,” says Cheryl, “What did you learn, what will you do differently next time?”
“This isn’t a ‘cookie cutter’ program, you need to live it to get it,” says Sue. That starts with a two day workshop around Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People focused on living it before teaching it. “You have to make it your own.”
“Students take it home,” added Cheryl, “and we teach the seven habits at a Parent University in the fall.” Leadership is incorporated into daily learning targets, parent newsletters, student portfolios and regular interactions among all members of the school community.
Mukilteo Elementary is one of 230 Lighthouse Schools–a high fidelity deployment–for The Leader in Me program. Students collect evidence of their leadership and academic progress in a three ring notebook (right).
3951ff9a-25b0-4cb9-be3c-939b8b4785eb_Leadership20PicnicMukilteo uses STAR assessments to set and track reading goals (we met fifth graders ready for high school) and Accelerated Reader to encourage reading
The highlight of the year (and our trip) was the Leadership Picnic Celebration where students share their progress with their parents over a picnic (right). Parents meeting with their children covered the school grounds, and even older siblings came.
Parents and children scoured the student’s leadership notebooks together. These student-led conferences occurred during the lunch hour to accommodate the many parents 527be89d-270f-4732-906c-de739c8f1e87_pasted20image200that work at the nearby Boeing facility. Students who did not have family members that could come to the event were able to share their work with buddies from an older grade.
School leadership worked to ensure that no student or family member was left out. This year set a new school record at over 400 visitors!

Leadership in Action

When a housing development resulted in clear cutting over 10 acres of forest, “Students were heartbroken. Many were crying,” said Cheryl.
Students banded together in an environmental leadership group, and developed a plan to restore and enhance an overgrown and forgotten 2-acre parcel of land directly adjacent to the playground.
With help from school volunteers and community groups including the Boy Scouts, they created an outdoor classroom with an amphitheater and trails with annotated stations (right).
Mukilteo Elementary School is a great example of how giving students a voice has powerful impact. From the school culture and the commitment to family engagement to their unique outdoor learning space, this is definitely a school to see for yourself.
For more examples of great schools doing great work, check out:

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Shawna Brenneke

My daughter started in kindergarten the year this was implemented at Mukilteo Elementary and is now moving on to middle school. Congrats to the staff and Pat Cushing for making a difference in so many lives. Thank you!!!

Heida Brenneke

Reading about the philosophy and the success of Mukilteo Elementary helps to explain the maturity and success of my granddaughter Sami. Thank you so much for the enormous effort that this program requires of the whole school community. The rewards are obvious to me and bring me joy.

Martin Sumichrast

Hi Tom, this post really looks very interesting to me. I enjoyed reading this kind of stuff, thanks!


I love the idea of making leadership training a big part of a child's education! I had never heard of FranklinCovey's leadership program for kids but I absolutely see the value in what it has to offer. I highly value children getting real world education and experience so that they develop the necessary skills and pride of being a productive member of society. Mukilteo is doing an incredible service to these kids by implementing the above mentioned practices.

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