Susan Yusk demonstrates the varying densities of Coke and Diet Coke with a floating experiment at W.R. McNeal Elementary School (Warren County). Photo by Amy Wallot, Feb. 24, 2012

Susan Yusk demonstrates the varying densities of Coke and Diet Coke with a floating experiment at W.R. McNeal Elementary School (Warren County). Photo by Amy Wallot, Feb. 24, 2012

By Susan Riddell

Gina Crabtree could not wait to teach at McNeill Elementary School (Bowling Green Independent), saying it had been a dream of hers for years.

“I drove outside my county (for work) for eight years waiting on a job to open at McNeill,” she said. “With the attrition rates here, it’s hard to get in. When a job finally opened, I was elated to be hired.

“Every day, I feel like I’m right where I’m meant to be.”

Crabtree is in her fifth year at McNeill Elementary and her fourth as the school’s guidance counselor. She isn’t alone in her feelings regarding the school, which was named a 2011 National Blue Ribbon School along with four other Kentucky public schools.

Science teacher Susan Yusk said students feel comfortable at McNeill Elementary, but are still expected to meet high expectations.

“(Students’) ideas are highly valued, and therefore they feel important,” Yusk said. “In that type of environment, students excel.

“One of our school’s goals is to make our students lifelong learners,” she added. “I believe our teachers do an excellent job with this. Our academic expectations for each student are high, and by making learning fun and igniting their curiosity, the expectations are usually met.”

Marsha Ingram is in her 27th year at McNeill Elementary. She taught 5th grade for 21 years, and this is her sixth year as the school’s principal.

“The best qualities my teachers have are their passion for meeting the needs of our students and their desire to expand their teaching strategies by developing engaging lessons so our students can soar and be independent learners,” Ingram said of her staff members.

The Leader in Me initiative has played a big role in the school’s success, Ingram said. Students at McNeill Elementary have thrived, in fact, by participating in this districtwide initiative based on Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Happy Kids.

The seven habits are:

  1. Be proactive.
  2. Begin with the end in mind.
  3. Put first things first.
  4. Think win-win.
  5. Seek first to understand, and then you will be understood.
  6. Synergize.
  7. Sharpen the saw.

Schools in the Bowling Green Independent school district have been allowed to decide how they would implement these habits into curriculum. McNeill Elementary chose to incorporate it throughout all grade levels by embedding the language into daily curriculum, morning assemblies and behavior plans, Crabtree said.

“This program basically takes the normal teacher/student roles out of the equation and places the responsibilities on the student,” she said. “The students now see that they are responsible for their actions, feelings and moods. Therefore, our referrals for discipline have decreased dramatically, and we have seen average students who used to fly under the radar emerge as real leaders.”

The Seven Habits of Happy Kids gives the students the tools to help them make good choices about day-to-day issues,” Ingram added. “It teaches them about principles such as responsibility, planning ahead, respect for others, teamwork and balance. It also equips them with a common language they can use with parents, teachers and peers. Empowering the students with these tools has allowed the students to grow in so many areas. They take ownership in the choices they make that affect their education and future.”

Students at McNeill Elementary attend weekly guidance classes taught by Crabtree. Each student has a leadership notebook where they track goals set and those achieved.

“By tracking their goals, the students are taught how to problem-solve, and it helps them focus on the ‘end in mind’ (this year’s point of emphasis),” Crabtree said. Students are led into “real-world connections and illustrate how the choices they make now impact their future. Our goal for the kids is to be able to take more of an active role in their parent-teacher conferences and become accountable for their work ethic.

“Each of the seven habits teaches skills that are vital to college- and career-readiness, and guidance class is used to intentionally teach how these habits play a role in college- and career-readiness,” Crabtree added.

Science partnerships enforce ‘experience’
While McNeill Elementary’s Leader in Me initiative is just in its second year, the school’s emphasis on science is nothing new.

“We have an abundance of resources that help engage students in the science curriculum,” Ingram said. “We have developed partnerships with Mammoth Cave National Park and Western Kentucky University, and we take advantage of all opportunities to bring in programs into the school.”

Yusk is in her 15 years of teaching and sixth at McNeill Elementary. She said the school has had a science lab for 12 years.

“Every week, Mina Doerner, a dedicated parent volunteer, and I set up the lab with hands-on activities that can be modified and adapted for grades kindergarten through 5th grade,” Yusk said. “The students love going to the lab to investigate and discover something new.”

Yusk said the school’s PTA purchased most of the supplies needed for the science lab.

When partnering with Mammoth Cave National Park, the school brings in a park ranger once a month to give students outdoor educational experiences that correlate with the content in the school’s curriculum, Yusk said.

This is the first year the school has partnered with Western Kentucky University in a districtwide initiative.

“Our school system is working with the Western Kentucky Center for Environmental Education and Sustainability to educate all our teachers on how to bring science alive to our students,” Yusk said. “The center is working on this by offering professional development activities and other resources for our schools.

“McNeill has dedicated science teachers that provide authentic learning experiences for our children,” Yusk added. “The science concepts are built upon from kindergarten on through the 5th grade. Science can’t be learned from a book; it has to be experienced.”

Marsha Ingram,, (270) 746-2260