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LEAD boosting students at RIMSD41 schools

How would you like to spend every other Friday in elementary school going swimming, visiting a college or a factory or learning how to cook at the grocery store? Or maybe even begin the process of learning how to fly?

Those are just a few of the many wide-ranging activities students at Denkmann and Eugene Field Elementary School in the Rock Island Milan School District 41 are doing for about two and a half hours every other Friday.

It's called the Learn, Enrich And Discover (LEAD) program, and is the brainchild of Eugene Field Principal Dennis Weiss. He came up with the idea of the LEAD program after going through the process of transforming his building into a Leader In Me School, which is based on the Steven Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. 

Weiss, a longtime teacher/coach/principal husband and father, opted to create some free time by starting school a little earlier each day and by keeping his students in school on Wednesdays until their normal dismissal time. Wednesday is a day when most RIMSD41 students dismiss about an hour early.

With the help of his "talented" staff, he then put together LEAD, which they continuously work at improving.

Research has shown that kids start to get interested in their life's path as early as fifth grade, Weiss said. "The concept is I wanted to help kids find their purpose and passion in life," Weiss said. "A lot of our kids just go through school and we talk about college and career and we never show it to them."

So fifth graders take career tours. It could be a trip to United Township's Vocational Center, hopefully soon some factory tours and visits to places like Wells Fargo Bank, IHeart Radio, Trinity College of Nursing or Roman Orthodontics.

Meanwhile sixth graders are required to visit four colleges from among Black Hawk College, Augustana, Western Illinois University QC campus, St. Ambrose University and Scott Community College.

"We try to give them a mix of careers, so the kids when they start thinking about the future, they say, 'hey, I can go to college and here's some colleges I can go to or here's some careers I want to go after," Weiss said.

The entire school at Eugene Field Elementary is gone on Friday from noon until 2:30 p.m. Three different activities might ride one bus with the locations near each other.

All told, students choose from about 20-25 age-appropriate activities for their 16 activities per year.

Students are touring museums, going to the Rock Island Fitness Center for swimming lessons, learning to bowl at Quad-City Family Entertainment or maybe staying at school and learning how to play the guitar with River Music Experience.

Other activities include Tae Kwon Do, gymnastics, art activities with Figge Art Museum and Bettendorf Family Museum and robotics or chemistry at the Putnam Museum.

"We are looking at giving the kids additional opportunities with educational type of experiences that they might not ever get," Denkmann Principal John Frieden said.

Both principals enjoy the reactions they get from kids after the trips.

For example at Black Hawk College they learned if they are in the top 10 percent of their graduating class at Rocky, they could attend college free for two years, they excitedly told Frieden.

And one student wrote that after going to the bowling center, he told his family about it and they went bowling as a family activity.

But the two principals have also heard other important things.

"They went to Black Hawk College, came back and said, 'Mr. Weiss, you can't believe that they got a store in the school. The got trees in the parking lot and they even have a pool, and you can go there.'

"They met somebody," added Weiss sharing his own perspective that in a way, they are networking. "They now have a face. They've been there."

Activities like bowling and golf, among others, allow parents who are passionate about the activity, to come and share their expertise with the students, too.

Both principals point out that the district also benefits from interacting with the community.

"I've met some really great people in the community who want to help kids," Weiss said.

And the kids often shed a good light on the district, too. "When we get out in the public and the kids behave because of the Leader in Me program (which trains leadership in students by focusing on Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) they show good leadership skills, it really shows well for not just my school but for Rock Island because now we are out in the community and working with some great people," Weiss said.

"We want kids to use those seven habits when they go out in the community," Frieden said. It also creates a very high attendance rate for school on Fridays of the activity, Weiss said. 

This year the school district is picking up the tab for Eugene Field's program, but in the past, Weiss has gotten help from John Deere, the United Way, the Rock Island Foundation and Rock Island Development.

Both principals are also writing for additional grants for the program.

The LEAD program's results are good across the board, really.

"It's a different way to get parent involvement," Weiss said. "It's a different way to get kids excited. It's a different way to open kids' eyes. Quit telling them about college and career. Go show them about college and career."

Frieden said it also benefits the daily education they receive in that they see how it connects to the real world. Kids are always grumbling about having to do fractions in math. But when they went to Hyvee and did some cooking, "they come back and say, 'there's a lot of fractions in cooking. Now we understand why,'"he said.

"Now they can relate what they are learning in school to when they go out in the world."

The fact that they are at the businesses during a normal slow period helps the businesses, too, Frieden said. Both principals said students often go back and sign up for activities at some of the businesses.

It's basically, to quote Covey "a win-win," he said.

"I am very proud because my staff, it's not just me," Weiss said. His idea? Yes, but he quickly points out the staff has made it better and now in its fourth year at Eugene Field, continues to make it better.

"We always look to add something new for the kids," Weiss said. "But we hope that it adds a lasting impact for the kids as they are contemplating their future. Hopefully, this will give them a glimpse of what they can do."

"We are probably the only two buildings in the country that do this," said Frieden who has presented the program to other principals throughout the Midwest. "The kids know when it's a LEAD day. It makes the school year more exciting."