A new generation of leaders

Published 8:43 pm Monday, May 4, 2015

When Creekside Elementary School’s Jesse Ellison left Suffolk Public Schools for a position with the Virginia Beach public school system this year, a great tradition at Creekside was suddenly in jeopardy.

Ellison had been the adviser for a mentoring organization for young boys, the Breakfast Club. It was designed as a way to groom boys to become leaders in their school and, eventually, in society at large. Ellison’s departure left the program’s future in question, one more unfortunate effect of substandard pay rates for the city’s public school teachers.

But Creekside physical education teacher Erik Johnson recognized the importance of Ellison’s work with the school’s boys, and he came up with a way to continue that work, while giving the program a fresh start.

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Johnson’s idea was to start a new group, The Association, with similar goals. Meeting once a week, the club seeks to impart life skills upon its members, whom Johnson said are selected in coordination with other teachers in the building. The boys chosen for the group, he told staff writer Matthew Ward last week, demonstrate leadership qualities and abilities, but need reassurance and encouragement.

About 18 future leaders now meet with Johnson and two other teachers once a week for lunch in a classroom attached to the gymnasium at Creekside, and they are getting great exposure to — and advice from — adult leaders in the community. One of their recent speakers was Suffolk Schools Superintendent Deran Whitney, who joined the boys for lunch last week.

Whitney talked about how he maintains his work ethic, describing an acronym, PERP, that he uses to remind himself of the characteristics of a good leader: perseverance, effort, responsibility and problem solving.

It was a simple lesson that concluded, as Whitney’s presentations to students often do, with the superintendent hearing from the boys about their goals for when they grow up. When one youngster said he hoped to play football, the answer gave Whitney the opportunity to share another important lesson — the need to have a backup plan in case a primary goal proves unattainable.

With Virginia’s outcome-focused approach to education, an approach that often results in instructional time being geared toward rigid standards of learning, there is little time left for teachers to spend on such life lessons. Yet those lessons are no less important than the ones that consume classroom hours.

Kudos to the folks at Creekside and to community leaders like Whitney, who recognize the need to move beyond the standards of learning in order to groom a new generation of leaders.