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Bess T. Shepherd Elementary School

A unique leadership initiative at a Chattanooga elementary school that goes beyond the classroom to set students up for success is bringing recognition to the educators who started it.

Through the 2-year-old Student Leadership Academy program at Bess T. Shepherd Elementary School, a group of more than 30 students took a day off school last month to tour the state Capitol in Nashville.

The trip is just one of the opportunities that students are receiving through the enrichment program that has garnered Lindsey Hagan and Patricia Russell nominations for the Young Professionals Association of Chattanooga's "Corporate Innovators of the Year" award.

At Bess T. Shepherd, where more than 90 percent of the students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches, Principal Valerie Brown said the leadership academy is helping change the mindset of children to make them more aware of their power to shape their own futures.

"A lot of times, since a lot of our kids live in poverty, they think they don't have control when something bad happens to them," Brown said.

But the program is helping change that mindset. Brown said the school is establishing a team to see how the leadership academy can be expanded within the school.

Currently, it is available to third- through fifth- grade students who complete an application that includes a written portion. Once accepted, students are required to attain at least a "C" average, exhibit good behavior and maintain good attendance.

Students meet once a week before school for a leadership lesson, and once a quarter they get to be out of class for the day to apply the lessons. On one recent outing, they took toys to patients at Siskin Children's Institute.

"It's kind of a school within the school," said Hagan, who brought the idea for the program from a school in Alabama where she worked previously. "They have a curriculum they follow and certain things they have to accomplish. They get a report card on their habits and traits each quarter. It really is developing them, and we've seen some awesome growth from our kids."

Among the material covered in the curriculum written by Hagan and Russell, a guidance counselor at the school, is the book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey.

Hagan and Russell said the nomination from YPAC is a welcome recognition for things happening at their school. They want to share the model they've developed for the program with other local schools.

But mostly, they're hopeful the lessons learned by their students will resonate through Chattanooga.

"We're excited about what the kids are going to do in the future," said. "The whole purpose of the program is to equip them with skills they can use as they go throughout their education and hopefully go out into the community and serve as leaders."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at or 423-757-6731.