By Larry Lee
It was near the end of last school year when the note on the corner of the principal’s desk caught my eye. I was at Elberta Elementary school in Baldwin County. The writer said that he had enjoyed school that year and he had learned a lot about Elvis.
Whoa. Since when did Elvis become part of the third-grade curriculum?
I immediately asked principal Hope Zeanah to tell me more. This brought a big laugh and a story.
Turns out that she is a longtime Elvis fan and for years folks have given her all sorts of memorabilia--like sets of mugs, scarves, photos, etc. and even one large bust of “the King.”
Most of it was in her private bathroom at school, which she called “the Elvis museum.” So twice a year, on the anniversary of his birth and death she made an announcement that the museum was open for field trips. Teachers would bring their class to the “museum” to learn about Elvis.
I visit lots of schools across the state. Each has its own culture and own “vibes,” so to speak. What I always feel when I visit Elberta is joy. This is a happy place. Students are glad to be there. They feel safe and loved. (And as we know too well, not all children feel this at home these days.)
This culture is established first thing each morning when students gather in the gym for the WEES morning show. There are songs (Take Me Out to the Ballgame is a standard), pledge to the flag, a moment of silence, the school motto, even a weather report and sports report.
Students (Elberta is a K-3 school) handle the entire production. All involved have to interview for the job they want.
It is all part of the “Leader in Me” program adopted by Eleberta Elementary and several other Baldwin County schools, a few years ago. Based on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the program is about engaging students and having them understand that they are responsible for their own actions.
All students have a job. It may be delivering the morning mail from the school post office (which is how the Elvis note got to Zeanah’s desk), to cleaning tables in the lunchroom, to being a singer on the morning show. There are even “shoe sheriffs,” who are designated to tie the unlaced shoes of fellow students.
“Our kids have thrived as we implemented this,” says Zeanah. Records show that discipline problems dropped nearly 60 percent in the last two years.
Other notes from students (all delivered through the school post office) back up Zeanah’s comment.
Dear Mz Zena,
I love you. I like the shoes you ware.
Dear Ms. Zeanah,
Would you please tell my teacher to let us go to the zoo on a field trip. My brother’s teacher took his class. I am sick of hearing him talk about it. Write me back soon.
Deer Mz Zima,
You are the best prinicble I have ever had. Will you please by my princible next year when I am in the 1st grade?
Zeanah was at Elberta Elementary as principal for 16 years. In 2013 she was Alabama Elementary Principal of the Year. She recently joined the Baldwin County central office staff to work with principals throughout the county.
There were lots and lots of tears when she switched jobs. And while Elvis has now left the building at Elberta Elementary, his museum has been re-located to another building.
Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues. email@example.com. Elberta is a town of 1,500 in south Alabama.
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