Sheridan, WY – Kaleb Hiller, a fourth-grader at Coffeen Elementary, takes his job as one of three school-wide "writing tool assistants" very seriously.
Each day, he gives up his before-school recess to sharpen pencils for the school's students, teachers and staff.
"My son Kaleb is a pencil sharpener --" his mother Angie Hiller started.
"-- Writing tool assistant," Coffeen's school counselor Jennifer Black corrected, smiling.
Kaleb is one of many students who hold volunteer "leadership jobs" at Coffeen -- one of several new initiatives at the elementary school that encourage responsibility, accountability and prepare students for the real world, according to Coffeen Principal Nicole Trahan.
"We decided to turn over some of the day- to-day leadership to the kids," Trahan said. "We have door greeters, so we have two girls that come to school early, they open the doors and greet the kids and parents as they come in. We've got cafe cleaners. Those kids give up their lunch recess to come in and clean the tables for the older kids coming in. We've got salad bar helpers who help the younger kids go through the salad bar. We've got a recycling team."
Any student interested in a leadership job must apply, is interviewed and is selected, much like an adult job, Trahan said.
"We tell them, If you apply for this job and you are given this job, you are not allowed to quit, unless you have a good reason,"' she said.
The students take the jobs seriously, Angie Hiller, who is also the school's PTO president, said. Her son recently came home a little stressed about his job. He was one kid doing work for three -- he needed recruits.
"He came to me last week and said, `I just don't know if I can do it. It is a lot of pencils.' ... He was the only one," she said.
"The kids take these jobs very seriously. If they are not going to be here to greet at the door, they call in. ... But he came home the other day and says, I got a new recruit for my job!"'
So late last week, Kaleb was enthusiastic once again about his job as a Coffeen writing tool assistant.
"This morning, we had two new assistants with Kaleb," Trahan said on Thursday. "He's walking down the hall with the new guy, like, Come on, buddy, I'll show you what to do!' He took that leadership role on."
Coffeen Elementary faces some unique challenges, Trahan said. The school has an enrollment of 234 students, with three kindergarten and first grade classes, and two classes for every other grade.
Out of Coffeen's 234 students, 106 are new to the building this year, Trahan said. The school is also the highest title-needs funded school Sheridan County School District 2, she said.
That said, Trahan said the school's test scores have consistently risen over the past several years.
"In 2006-2007, there was not one score that was above the state average," she said. "Starting in 2008, there has been a consistent increase in Coffeen scores."
Trahan attributes that to several new school-wide programs, including the student leadership jobs, which is a part of a larger effort at the school called "Leader in Me."
The program, according to Black, takes Steven Covey's "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" and puts them into kids' language. The school has also brought in a behavioral model called Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, or PBIS, for Coffeen students to follow, Black said.
"We have a common language and common expectations," she said.
With clear expectations, Trahan said, discipline referrals have gone down.
"Discipline referrals are down at least 90 percent from (three years ago)," she said. "That is from PBIS.
Kids didn't know what they were expected to do, how they were expected to behave on the play- ground, in the hallway, in the classroom, in the cafeteria. If they don't know those expectations, they can't meet them. When we put those expectations into place, it was almost overnight. Once they knew what was expected, referrals dropped."
The school is also offering an after school program called Coffeen Elementary's collaborative Creative Academic Recreational Enrichment that combines in-house, one hour programs like "Science Seekers," "History Hounds" and the homework club with YMCA after-school activities, including free swimming lessons.
PTO vice president and CARE organizer Amanda Lawson said she hopes to expand the program to include attendance to local cultural and sporting events at the WYO Theater or Sheridan College.
"The idea is that we will provide Coffeen kids with as many educational experiences, community experiences and recreational experiences as possible, with the idea that these experiences will give them more knowledge to tackle the world, more confidence in the community and to help them be excited about learning," Lawson said.
All CARE programs are free and open to any student, Lawson said. There are currently about 75 kids in the CARE programs and 120 including students who participate in Coffeen's after-school tutoring and homework clubs.
The teachers at Coffeen are also working on developing personal relationships with each student in their classrooms, Trahan said.
"The goal for every student, every day (is that) they will achieve beyond (what they thought were) their capabilities, behaviorally, academically, if you have a good relationship with them," she said.
Combined, the programs have had a positive effect on the school, she said.
Since the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, Coffeen standardized test scores have been above the state average in nearly every grade level and subject. Out of nine categories, the school scored below state average in only two this year -- and inone of the categories, was under state averages by one percentage point.
"It is consistent. Our scores are consistently getting better," she said.
Angie Hiller said she has seen a shift in thinking at the school and that she is passionate" about Coffeen.
"The jobs prepare these kids for real life. I think they are incredible, and they have made a huge difference in our students, in their accountability and their ownership of the building," she said.
Really, though, she wants Kaleb to be ready for the real world as he grows up.
"At the end of this long road that is school, we just want our kids to come out capable -- capable of having a functional, happy life. That is what is nice about Coffeen ... if my kid comes out of here an incredible leader, that would mean as much to me as my kid getting a (perfect) report card, if not more," she said.