Leader in Me at Gossler Park Elementary

First-grade teacher Brittany Roberts coaches first-grader Leiana Ducharme to talk about her role in the school’s leadership program at Gossler Park Elementary in 2016.

Gossler Park Elementary School has learned a few things about leadership over the past four years. Change your culture and more kids — and teachers — show up in the morning.

Schools on the West Side took a beating last December when the Union Leader published a school-by-school breakdown of chronically absent teachers. For the 2017-18 school year, West Side schools had some of the highest rates of teacher absenteeism in Manchester.

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Sixty percent of Manchester High School West teachers were absent 10 or more times. At Parkside Middle School, it was 61%. And at Parker-Varney Elementary School, 51%.

At Gossler Park Elementary — just a kickball bounce across the campus from Parkside — that truancy list was a badge of honor: At 26%, Gossler had the second lowest rate in the district.

You might call it a “win-win” for Gossler, a school where they have turned the childhood game of follow the leader on its head.

Gossler just finished its fourth year using a program based on the late Stephen Covey’s management classic, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Sean Covey co-wrote a sequel called “The Leader in Me” that adapted his father’s lessons for the classroom. 

“We have seen significant changes in behaviors and know that this will continue to play a positive role in our students’ lives,” Principal Lori Upham said in March after Gossler was named a “ ‘Leader in Me’ Lighthouse School” by the FranklinCovey company (leaderinme.org).

The United Way has been investing $25,000 a year to fund Gossler’s program. This fall — thanks to a $225,000 donation from Mark and Sally Stebbins — the nonprofit will expand the program to the entire West Side, introducing the concept to West High, Parkside, Parker-Varney and Northwest Elementary School.

“I think a lot of us read ‘The 7 Habits’ when we were in our early adulthood, and this is really taking some of those things and putting it in a language and in a context that kids can understand,” said Meredith Young, who leads the program for the United Way.

It was Young who cited Mark Hayward’s Union Leader report on teacher absenteeism during an interview last week. Gossler didn’t even rate a mention in the story since its teacher attendance numbers were so strong.

“They’re seeing improved attendance. They are seeing improved student behavior,” Young said. “They are seeing stronger academic progress and really tying this to how students manage their own learning and become leaders in the classroom.”

After teachers at Gossler learned about The Leader in Me through a study group, some visited schools where it has been implemented. They convinced the United Way to take a chance on a pilot.

“When we shared the progress and how impressed we were with the Stebbins and some of our other stakeholders we got very excited and said, ‘Why aren’t we doing this across all the West Side schools in Manchester?’said Patrick Tufts, president and CEO of Granite United Way.

Longtime philanthropists Mark and Sally Stebbins, owners of PROCON, a fourth-generation construction management company, agreed to visit Gossler at Tufts’ prompting. Mark Stebbins’ grandfather built the elementary school in 1956.

“There’s my grandfather — my wife and I and my daughter are there, and there’s a sign, ‘Built by Blanchard Stebbins,’ ” Mark Stebbins said last week.

Despite that legacy, Stebbins recalled being skeptical. That changed when he visited with a Gossler second-grader.

“She is looking me in the eye, sitting right beside me, going through her notebook,” Stebbins said.

Stebbins found students in other classrooms who also carried themselves with confidence and a sense of purpose — strong tools for kids who may be living under adverse conditions in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“These seven habits tell them how to get things done in spite of the roadblocks,” he said. “When they encounter a roadblock they turn to teachers for guidance.”

Just days before Stebbins visited the Union Leader to talk about the Leader in Me program, he and his wife had celebrated the completion of $3 million in renovations at Camp Foster, the day camp in Bedford operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Manchester. The project includes Stebbins Family Hall.

It’s the kind of project the Stebbins and his wife are known for — building a new building. Stebbins knowns Gossler could use a new building, too. But with the success he sees with The Leader in Me, he wonders whether a new school would have as much impact.

“Manchester is not there where it’s ready to put $100 million into schools, but here’s something we can do to help, and maybe money isn’t the issue. Maybe this is teaching us something,” Stebbins said. “That money isn’t the answer to everything. We give them better schools, and the teachers are still going to be unhappy. The students aren’t going to learn any better.”

Money may not be the issue altogether, but the United Way still needs more of it to meet its goal to fund the Leader in Me to all 3,200 students on the West Side.

“To do this project the total budget is $520,000 to bring this for five years to the kids of Manchester. We still need about $180,000,” Tufts said. “We are accepting donations to this, and the Stebbins are very graciously matching up to $225,000.”

They’re hoping the Queen City will be proactive — or as Meredith Young’s 5-year-old son says, “pro-acting.” There’s even a Leader in Me handbook for preschoolers, said Young, who also has a 2-year-old daughter.

“He did turn to her the other day and tell her she needed to think win-win, but I think he did that to get whatever he wanted,” she said. “I’m not sure that we’re totally there yet, but we’re working on it.”

Mike Cote is the business editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. Contact him at mcote@unionleader.com or (603) 206-7724.