A school district discovers that high academic achievement
begins with leadership development for all students


John Jay Bonstingl


“I am preparing myself to become a school superintendent!” Lizeth Ruvalcaba proclaimed. A roar of applause went up from the standing-room-only audience of superintendents representing every region of the United States.

Why such an enthusiastic response? Lizeth Ruvalcaba happens to be just 10 years old, a 5th grade student in the Victor Elementary School District in southern California.

Lizeth’s remarks were part of a presentation she and her classmate, Christina Negrete, made as my co-presenters at the national AASA convention in San Antonio. Our topic: “10 Keys for Planning a Successful Leadership Retreat.”

Most school districts conduct annual leadership retreats for their school boards, central and site leadership teams, and their business and community partners. Holding leadership development retreats for students, on the other hand, is a new and somewhat revolutionary idea -- one that is catching on fast across the country.

It was Ralph Baker’s idea to bring me to Victorville to conduct a series of leadership retreats with teams of elementary students from every school in his district. Dr. Baker is superintendent of Victor Elementary School District in San Bernardino County, the position he has held for two decades. Dr. Baker and I first met when he attended my session at a superintendents’ retreat conducted by the Association of California School Administrators.

In our series of Victorville leadership retreats, we worked with teams of elementary students, teaching them essential skills in personal leadership, partnership and teamwork, and creative problem-solving they will need to survive and thrive in the adult world of work. As they grow into mature adults, our young people will find these skills useful in their lives as responsible, nurturing parents and as citizens of their communities, of our nation, and of our world.

The student retreats are part of a Baldrige Quality-based national pilot project called Leaders for the Future, conducted with students at all levels, from elementary through high school. The entire Victor Elementary School District is engaging in the Baldrige Improvement Process, as part of a long-term commitment to excellence at all levels of functioning.

“Students achieve at high levels when they invest their thoughts and energies in long-term projects that are interesting to them,” Dr. Baker says. “The most interesting long-term project for any student is his or her own life. That’s why student leadership development is so important. By teaching our students the tools and strategies to successfully lead their own lives, we give them the keys to succeed in every aspect of life. Their motivation for learning and personal achievement goes up, their grades and test scores improve. Students begin to look at themselves and their potential in a different way. It’s a natural progression.”

Today, Lizeth sees herself as a school superintendent in the making, a goal she would never have dreamed of, prior to her experiences in the Leaders for the Future Quality-focused student leadership training. “It changed the way I think about myself,” says Lizeth. “Now I know I have what it takes to be anything I want to be!”

And what did Lizeth and Christina think about flying with their parents and Maureen Savage, their teacher, all the way from California to San Antonio, Texas, to make a presentation in front of all those school superintendents at the AASA convention? “Awesome!” both girls chimed in unison. “We also visited the Alamo,” Christina said. “We learned a lot!”

Fifth grade teacher Maureen Savage agrees: “These two girls learned a great deal about themselves and what they are capable of. We chose them for Bonstingl’s student leadership training not because they are the natural ‘stars’ in our school, but because they have a lot of untapped and unrecognized potential. Now, these two girls see themselves as unstoppable. Now they can do anything!” Maureen smiles broadly. “Thanks to Dr. Baker and our student leadership development retreats, these girls have a future they never dreamed about before.”

Victor Elementary School District’s mission statement is a familiar one for superintendents and their lead teams: “All students will be at or above grade level in reading, writing, and mathematics as measured by results on state exams.” The vision of the school district, however, is unique: “Victor Elementary School District will prepare all students to be able to select from a variety of career opportunities and to be successful in the world of work.”

Dr. Baker attributes the school district’s career-focused vision directly to his school board. “They’re the boss. This is what the board members believe is the most important work we have to do with all of our children. We can be successful only when our children are successful in school and in later life.”

Ralph Baker’s work has not gone unnoticed at the office of the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools. Ron Williams, the county’s coordinator for systemic school reform, is enthusiastic about what he sees at Victor ESD. “Ralph Baker is a true visionary leader, that rare type of leader who would be successful anywhere in our country,” Williams says. “We’re very lucky to have him here with us. He understands how to enlist the very best efforts of everyone in his district, and his goal is to make every student successful in school and in life.”

School board president Karen Morgan concurs. Quality-focused student leadership training gets kids to take on challenges they might have thought they could never accomplish. I’ve seen it for myself: every success builds new competencies and gives them another level to strive for.”

“Once they learn effective personal leadership tools,” Mrs. Morgan believes, “students discover that they do indeed have innate leadership abilities, even at such a young age. With the right tools, training, and support, every child can – and should – be an effective leader of his or her own life. This is very empowering. No wonder these kids do better in their school work.”

“Empowering students to become constructive, productive leaders ensures their options as adults are broad and attainable,” says Nancee Fine, 6th grade teacher and president of the Teacher’s Association. Ms. Fine observed the student leadership program and is sold on it. “When students gain confidence in their leadership abilities, their growth is able to be used in their academic life and with their peers to attack socially relevant issues. Their growth and success is why we are in this business.”

In Leaders for the Future, our student participants begin by listing all of the attributes they look for in a true leader. They are then asked how they might emulate those characteristics in their own lives, and how they should work together in the training to exemplify the best attributes of an effective leader.

The student teams then learn and experiment with a set of Quality-focused leadership and problem-solving tools taken from my book Schools of Quality, as they address the central question: What are the main strengths of our school, and what is most in need of improvement? Student teams select one area for improvement to take back to their schools as their own team project. They learn practical strategies to think through the implications and ripple effects of their project, and they learn how to conduct professional networking with others to accomplish their goals.

Lizeth and Christina’s team, for example, determined that their new school facility had too few library books, so they set themselves to the task of getting more volumes for the library. In just two months Lizeth, Christina, and their allies were able to put more than 600 new nonfiction books on their school library’s shelves.

Other teams tackled problems focusing on how students could help keep the bathrooms cleaner and odor-free throughout the day, how they could help improve communication between school and families, and how the school playground surface could be improved for greater safety.

According to assistant superintendent for business services Mick McClatchy, who is an examiner for the Baldrige-based California Award for Performance Excellence (CAPE), “Student leadership development at the K-6 level is an integral component of our district’s continuous improvement continuum to achieve excellence in the Baldrige Quality Criteria. The growth of our district’s staff leadership and student leadership run parallel and in support of one another.”

“We often don’t recognize the potential students have to take the lead in decision-making and problem-solving at their own schools,” Dale Marsden, a Baldrige/CAPE-qualified school principal suggests. “When children are engaged in leading their own schooling experiences, their personal pride, connection and commitment to school come alive!”

Marie Miller, assistant superintendent for pupil services, is delighted with the changes she has seen in the students, and in the entire district, as a direct result of the Quality-focused student leadership training program. “Take Jose Muñoz for example,” she says. “We picked Jose for the training because we knew he had something special inside him. He was a quiet boy, but still waters often run deep. Today, he is a new young man. The training changed Jose’s whole view of himself. Nothing builds confidence better than success. Through the training, Jose learned how to be successful.”

Mrs. Miller accompanied Jose Muñoz and his classmate Tianna Cofield and their parents to the annual conference of the Midwest Suburban Superintendents Association in Florida last December, where the two students shared with nearly one hundred superintendents all they learned in our Leaders for the Future Quality leadership training.

Jose relects on the experience: “I used to be shy, but not anymore!” Tianna exhibited such new-found confidence and self-assurance that the superintendents began referring to her as “Senator”!

Benefits of the student training are beginning to spread throughout the district, according to Marie Miller. “Now the adults are starting to go to the kids to include them in major decisions, such as selection of books that go into the library and choices of playground activities during lunchtime and recess. Teachers and administrators are increasingly treating students as partners in progress, rather than as empty vessels to be filled.”

The student leadership teams have gone back to their schools and conducted “cascade” training, sharing with their classmates and the entire school staff the same tools and strategies they learned in our sessions.

Marie Miller is careful to state that the children selected for the training were, for the most part, not the schools’ “star” students. “School principals and teachers selected the students with one criteria in mind: they must not be from the top eschelons. This has made all the difference,” according to Mrs. Miller.

What’s next? “We want our student teams to have follow-up training this spring, to reinforce their previous learning. These children will be going to middle school, and we want them to be prepared,” Marie Miller says. “Then, next fall, we will repeat the process with new teams of 4th and 5th graders, to keep the ball rolling.”

“The real test is when our students get into the world of work,” Dr. Baker reflects. “Then we will know whether we have succeeded -- yes or no.”

Dr. Baker is confident that the answer will be yes. He concludes, “Leadership development makes all the difference.”


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