At this school, every kindergartener can be a leader

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Want to know how to have a happy classroom? Try asking the kindergarteners at P.S. 344 AmPark Neighborhood School. They have some insightful answers. 

“Synergize,” Kailee Hernandez said with pride, using a vocabulary word normally said by much older people. “That’s one of our habits — work together.”

“I think it should be sharing stuff with people and being nice to each other,” Sasha Gross replied.

“I can make new friends,” Naima Mela answered. “When somebody is my friend and I play with them, they won’t be alone.”

The day’s question was part of a new program AmPark rolled out called “The Leader in Me.” It’s a school-friendly version of Stephen Covey’s bestselling book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” The goal is to show anyone can be a leader, and will be introduced not just to kindergarten students, but in all the grades at the school.

The philosophy not only impacted students — and how they interact with each other — but AmPark teachers as well. That has changed some of the language both students and teachers use when communicating with each other.

“Instead of saying, ‘We don’t like what you are doing,’ we’re asking them, ‘Are you being a leader right now? Are you doing your part?’” said Denise Olivet, the school’s kindergarten teacher. That “has turned our language into a positive rather than negative.”

One major way to feel something negative is when someone says you’re wrong. But even that can be turned into a more positive feeling, AmPark principal Kelly Lennon said.

“We are seeing students correct one another in really respectful ways,” she said. “Not just correcting them, but celebrating them. Being able to name what someone else is doing like that’s self-care, or we are synergizing because we’re working together, which is really special coming out of the mouths of babes.”

Through the leader program, they also show and celebrate the different ways to demonstrate that quality. A student “can be a gentle leader or a quiet leader by leading by example,” Lennon said, “by showing people the right way.”

Olivet and her kindergarten class read “The Seven Habits of Happy Kids” — a simplified version of Covey’s book where characters like Sammy Squirrel represent traits like working together and being responsible.

Olivet saw some changes in her students over the semester.
“They came in beautiful, but they’re definitely more articulate,” Olivet said.

“They are able to express how they feel a whole lot better because of the conversations that we have through the program. They love the big grown-up words that they’re using.”

AmPark teachers also have made changes to how they approach their day.

“The biggest takeaway has been the idea of balance,” Lennon said. One of the teachers created a regular gathering where they could engage in a short meditation or gentle yoga to “sharpen the saw.” Or, in classroom-friendly terms, take care of yourself and also find meaningful ways to help others.

A $60,000 grant from Panda Express, a chain of restaurants, covered training for AmPark teachers as well as for purchasing books and supporting materials. The school will fundraise to cover future costs like buying student workbooks after the grant ends, Lennon said.

Located at 3981 Hillman Ave., AmPark serves nearly 400 students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.

For Olivet, being a leader also means helping to set the right tone in the classroom, to nurture and develop those qualities in all of her students as they eventually move to first grade and beyond.

“It’s creating an environment where children can speak to just being thoughtful,” Olivet said. “We want to have a culture of people who are kind and thoughtful.”

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