NEAR WEST SIDE — At Andrew Jackson Language Academy, students have become fluent in yet another language this year, one that includes expressions like "think win-win," "synergize," and "be proactive."
If those phrases sound like lines from a corporate training manual, that's because they are. Under a pilot program being tested at the Near West Side's Andrew Jackson and three other Chicago Public Schools, those corporate buzzwords have become ingrained in the school's curriculum in an effort to instill leadership qualities in students.
Supporters of the program, started under former CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard before he resigned in October, say it fosters a disciplined approach to education and helps with so-called social emotional learning. But some critics say there is not enough proof it works and argue it is costly at a time when the district is facing financial woes.
The program, called "The Leader in Me," was created by the Utah-based Franklin Covey, a publicly-traded company that CPS has paid more than $263,000 since 2005, including more than $111,000 this year.
This year's spending was for The Leader in Me, the brainchild of the company's founder, Stephen Covey.
Covey, who died last year, is the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” the centerpiece of leadership training programs run by Franklin Covey that have been used by Fortune 500 companies.
The Leader in Me is a version of Covey's book adapted for younger students and used by more than 1,000 schools worldwide, though company officials admit evidence that it works is mostly anecdotal and say it's still too soon to fully measure the impact of the program on the schools where it's used.
Offered to all CPS schools before the start of the 2012-2013 school year, Andrew Jackson, Walsh Elementary, Pershing West Elementary and South Loop Elementary were the only schools to sign on, a CPS spokesman said.
At Andrew Jackson, Principal Mathew Ditto said the program was "a nice connection to work that we're already doing, but the thing we were missing was a common language that was principle based."
"When you're coming in at kindergarten and you have nine years of exposure to that, it's really powerful," Ditto said.
The seven habits — which also include expressions such as "Seek First to Understand Then To Be Understood" and "Put First Things First" — are now repeated to students in daily class exercises and school assemblies. Students incorporated the habits into special projects, including a fifth-grade opera and a 10-foot-long mosaic near the school’s entrance.
Ditto also uses the language in communications with parents: when a suspicious car was seen near the school earlier in the year, he emailed parents to say the school planned to "seek to understand" why the car was there. (It turned out to be a false alarm.)
The reaction among the school community has been mixed.
Second-grader Kofi Bugyei says his favorite part “is that we can all be together and we can all synergize and help each other out."
Fourth grader Brandon Cheng said some of what’s taught to kids, like putting first things first, have been taught before but "now we just have a new name for it.”
“It just reminds us more when we think about the name," Cheng said.
Some parents said the program instills discipline but others question whether it is necessary at a high-performing school like Andrew Jackson.
A school request to submit "family mission statements," as encouraged by the program, was met with some resistance. "That to me is very private," said one parent who opted out of the assignment.
But science teacher Amy Koonce said the program gives opportunities to students who might have never considered leadership roles.
“It puts them in a new place and they like that place,” she said. “So because they like that place, they want to continue that leadership role.”
In its printed materials, the company promises schools that use the program will see fewer discipline problems, improved test scores and higher engagement by staff members.
In a 2012 John Hopkins study, commissioned by the company, researchers spent 1 1/2 days interviewing staff, parents and students at each of two schools using The Leader in Me and concluded it "positively improved school climate." The schools also reported a decrease in bullying and disciplinary problems, although the report did not provide any statistics.
However, the authors could not correlate any impact on academic achievement with the program, noting "it is far too early to judge the impacts ... on student achievement."
Dustin Odham, who coordinates Franklin Covey’s Midwest implementation, acknowledged long-term studies are still needed in order to measure growth for schools using Leader in Me.
Kenneth Saltman, a DePaul University professor of Educational Policy, who reviewed the Johns Hopkins study, is skeptical the program could lead to dramatic change in students' behavior district-wide.
“They’re cherry picking schools they have contracts with and picking out the schools that have good test scores. That’s a really dubious claim for them [Franklin Covey] to be making,” Saltman said.
Saltman's not convinced public schools need to be teaching corporate culture, saying schools are "supposed to encourage debate, dialogue, dissent."
"How does a program that’s really modeled on becoming a corporate leader facilitate any of that?" Saltman said.
The Chicago Teachers Union also questioned why CPS wasn't being more transparent about the program. When first asked about costs associated with the program, CPS only revealed a $24,500 contract for training and supplies, until pressed further by DNAinfo.com Chicago.
Before this year, much of the money paid to Franklin Covey came through purchases of supplies that taught a version of the seven habits to teenagers in some high schools. But many of the purchase orders or contracts were below the $25,000 mark needed for approval by an independent board that approves spending.
“Since this is taxpayer money and since the district is always crying that it’s so broke, then we need to be extra diligent with our money and open and transparent with our contracts. CPS does not tend to do either,” CTU spokeswoman Sarah Hainds said via email.
How much the program will expand citywide in the future remains to be seen.
CPS does not have the results yet from assessments of the program, but says anecdotal reports are promising. Karen VanAusdal, CPS' manager of youth development and positive behavior supports, said the district was talking with three additional schools about using the program next year. But she said current schools that want to continue the program will have to find their own funding.
Ditto, whose school saw a nearly $110,000 budget cut, said he plans to put out surveys to evaluate the effectiveness of the program at his school now that the year is wrapping up but that "either way it's going to go forward, whether we have the support from Franklin Covey or we start to take it on all ourselves."
Franklin Covey's Odham said he is “always open to listen to folks that have critiques of our work."
“This is not about a culture. It’s about building leadership in every single child and every single teacher in that building,” Odham said.