Students and staff at Mills River and Upward Elementary will run the schools together under a leadership program set to roll out this fall.

This week, staff at both schools received training for Leader in Me, a student leadership program that just finished its third year at Dana and Sugarloaf Elementary, resulting in improved test scores and student leadership at both schools.

The program, a schoolwide transformation process based on Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” creates a culture of student empowerment where every child can be a leader.

This process officially kicks off Henderson County Education Foundation’s effort to expand the leadership development program in Henderson County Public Schools, through sponsor partnerships with local businesses and individuals.

“Instead of a top-down model, everyone’s involved; everyone runs the school,” Paul Knott, the Education Foundation’s former director, said when the expansion plans were first announced in October.

At Sugarloaf Elementary, EOG test scores improved 50 percent from the start of the program to the end of the second year, according to Knott, while EOG results at Dana Elementary have shown consistent improvement since implementation.

The schools use Covey’s seven habits as a foundation for creating a school culture while developing student leadership abilities. The lessons are not taught as a curriculum, but rather are mixed into coursework, traditions and school culture.

As an example, students meet with the principal and teachers to solve problems and identify opportunities to improve the school. They then go to the individual clubs and groups to get their peers involved in trying to make the school a better place, instead of having all the weight carried by teachers and principals.

Since the program’s launch in 2009, more than 3,000 schools across 50 countries have adopted The Leader in Me process.

Summer Stipe, the Education Foundation’s executive director, said it takes three years to fully implement the program. School staff will receive additional training later in the year as well as over the next two years.

“They don’t just train teachers and administrators,” Stipe said. “They train cafeteria staff, bus drivers, janitors, everybody that has contact with kids they train.”

Stipe said Mills River and Upward were the two schools that expressed the most interest in the program and already did most of the necessary pre-work.

Upward administrators and staff have been interested in becoming a Leader in Me school for years. However, implementing the program at schools costs about $70,000, an average of around $40 to $50 per child.

Donors Curt and Sue Maker agreed to fund all three years of implementation at a school, which will go towards Upward, with support during year one coming from United Way’s Women United Program.

“The new culture you create will have a major impact on every child who walks through the doors in August and thousands of students who will follow them in the years ahead,” Curt Maker told Upward’s staff on Wednesday. “You will make them better human beings and better students.”

Mills River Elementary’s training was paid for with a pot of money the Education Foundation is setting aside for the program. After the initial $70,000 fee, recurring costs of the program significantly drop at each school.

“For Mills River, the leader in me process will help teachers develop leadership skills in students and help students discover their unique strengths,” said Mills River Principal Chad Auten.

Stipe said the Education Foundation’s priority is to take the Leader in Me program to as many schools in the district as possible. The plan is to expand the program by two elementary schools per year as funds are available and as schools are interested in implementing it. She said they would love to expand the program to the middle and high schools eventually.

“The school system is not really forcing anyone to do this,” Stipe said. “It’s really about each school being ready on their own.”

Since January, $150,000 has been pledged by local businesses and individuals to take the program into additional schools over the next three years. Other large investments have been made by Park Ridge Health, Friday Staffing Services, Duke Energy Community Grant and Horizon Heating and Air.

“There’s a lot of room for growth so the more support we have from the community the more we can make this a reality,” Stipe said. “So we’re already starting to select schools for 18-19 because the earlier we select schools the cost is more effective.”

For more information on how to partner with the Education Foundation in this effort, contact Stipe at summer@hcefnc.org or 828-697-5551 or visit http://hcefnc.org/ourwork/leaderinme/.

This article was originally on BlueRidgeNow.