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News / Clark County News

‘Everyone has genius’: Hazel Dell Elementary celebrates success of leadership program for all its students

'We want them to see themselves as leaders'

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 5, 2024, 5:58pm
5 Photos
Parents watch and clap along as students from Hazel Dell Elementary School perform talents and give speeches as part of the school&rsquo;s third annual Leadership Day on Wednesday.
Parents watch and clap along as students from Hazel Dell Elementary School perform talents and give speeches as part of the school’s third annual Leadership Day on Wednesday. The celebration is the accumulation of a year’s work in a social-emotional learning program called “Leader in Me.” (Tommy Rhodes/for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Ben Barnes Silva’s song of choice: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.”

Dressed in his taekwondo robes — effectively a second skin for the third-grade martial arts expert — Ben took a deep breath before the final act of his performance.

Audience members paused in disbelief as the boy’s father approached the stage with a wooden plank. After a brief exhale, it happened.


That’s right, Ben jumped through the air and split the board with a flying kick, almost effortlessly. The crowd cheered.

Above the boy’s head plastered on the walls of Hazel Dell Elementary School’s auditorium read the words: “Be brave, take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.”

The school opened its doors to a hundred or so parents and community members Wednesday to sit in on the school’s Leadership Day, an end-of-year celebration led by students to showcase personal skills and social-emotional growth they’ve developed with teachers throughout the year.

Like Ben, many students demonstrated how they’ve grown their confidence. Others showed off their public speaking abilities or explained how their teachers have inspired them to be better students or friends.

“One thing we’re really trying to teach is that instead of thinking that just a few people are ‘gifted and talented,’ we are saying that everyone has genius. And we want to encourage them to share that genius,” Principal Lisa Reed said.

This year’s celebration was Hazel Dell Elementary’s third in a row. The concept is inspired by Leader in Me, a curriculum based on Stephen R. Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” that Hazel Dell’s staff has integrated into their classrooms since 2021. Reed said she learned of the program from a former Hazel Dell teacher and sought it to help her young students take better ownership over their actions and make discipline more cooperative.

“Our end in mind is that students are owning their learning,” Reed said. “We want them to see themselves as leaders learning leadership skills to help them navigate the world.”

Part of the routine

Each day at Hazel Dell Elementary begins with 30 minutes dedicated to Leader in Me lessons that teachers will then try to integrate into normal academics throughout the week. One of the program’s eight core tenets, for example, is to “begin with the end in mind.” In this case, teachers will encourage students to split up their bigger projects into steps so they may be easier to tackle. In a conflict scenario, the tenet might be used to help remind students they should always approach disputes with possible resolutions in mind.

“Before we were a Leader in Me school, staff would say we used to have conversations that were very straightforward about discipline. We’d use words that kids didn’t understand, so it wouldn’t pay off,” Reed said.

The program is developed alongside students. The school maintains two small councils of student leaders from all grades to provide periodic feedback on how they feel the lessons are going and how staff can better teach them throughout the day. The groups, known as the Junior and Senior Lighthouse Teams, have become essential to the school’s daily operations.

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“These kids are so prepared to go out into the world, already at this age,” Vancouver Public Schools board director Kathy Decker said at Wednesday’s event. “Every time I visit this school, (Reed) doesn’t give me a tour, the kids do.”

Fourth-graders Matthew LaPierre and Mila Hoang led Leadership Day’s itinerary start to finish — a feat they said was both a bit nerve-inducing but rewarding. The two said they were chosen because they had done the morning announcements for the school in the past.

“It made my blood rush. It’s kind of fun but also scary,” Matthew said, adding he was particularly nervous when he saw staff from his neighborhood Boys & Girls Clubs were in the audience. “A little humor goes a long way.”

Mila said public speaking has blossomed into one of her biggest personal strengths in her time at Hazel Dell Elementary.

“In kindergarten, I used to be really shy, I wouldn’t say ‘hi’ to anyone. But now, I’m really socializing with everyone. It’s just fun,” Mila said. “I do dance outside of school, and sometimes we have to lead our own rehearsals. The habits from school have really helped me synergize with the rest of my dance class.”

“Synergize” is one of the program’s eight tenets. Reed said it helps students understand how it feels to be on the same page with their classmates.

On the heels of the program’s continued success at Hazel Dell, Vancouver Public Schools is considering expanding it to other elementary schools in the district, according to a district spokeswoman.

“I’m really starting to see how far these kids have come,” said Hayden Mitchell, the club director at the next-door Boys & Girls Clubs of Southwest Washington. “When they come to us every day you can tell they’ve taken ownership of their spaces, they really come prepared.”