By STEVEN GOODE
The Hartford Courant
August 22, 2001
As he sat, eyes closed and head in hands, in the stands of Hartford Public High School’s muggy gymnasium early Tuesday morning, Cameron Cooper had one thought reverberating through his mind. “It’s my vacation. They’re messing up my vacation,” Cooper said. The reluctant 15-year-old was among about 135 incoming freshmen at Hartford Public who took part in an orientation program designed to give them skills to make it through their high school years – and life – successfully.
The day-long Student Achievement Workshop, based on the Franklin Covey Co. program titled “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” focused mainly on the first three of them: taking responsibility, defining goals and setting priorities. Through a series of exercises, discussions and skits, the students learned ways to resolve conflicts, improve themselves and achieve their goals.
“It’s the ultimate character education workshop,” said Gary McGuey, director of youth and development for Premiere Franklin Covey Co. McGuey, who developed the workshop about two years ago, said requests for it are growing rapidly across the country – and as far away as England – in response to violence in schools and other issues affecting young people today.
“It’s because of the turmoil, the so-called toxic culture,” said McGuey, who will next lead workshops in schools in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Southern California. Hartford Public officials wanted to offer the program because of the school’s recent history of high dropout rates among freshmen. Organizers say the school is the first in the nation to offer the workshop to an entire class of students. The program will include 12 follow-up sessions during the school year.
“We’re trying to get to all the freshmen as early as we can,” said Sheldon Lawrence, vice president of state and community relations for the Hartford Financial Services Group, which funds the program. “Hopefully they’ll gain new skills and be more successful.”
Lawrence said his company has paid for two smaller groups of Hartford Public students to take the workshop and has invested about $30,000 in materials and training costs for nine Hartford Public teachers to become workshop leaders. He said the company plans to continue funding future freshman class orientations unless it gets negative feedback from this year’s participants.
“If it works, it’s a minor investment,” Lawrence said. “It’s an opportunity to change the culture of the school.” Part of the current culture was still evident Tuesday: More than half of the incoming freshman class of 352 was absent from the orientation workshop. But school Principal Jose Colon, who said his staff called the home of every student and followed up with a letter, refused to be discouraged, chalking it up to the program’s being held during summer vacation and a lack of knowledge about the program’s goals. Colon said that next year’s orientation workshop will be held on the first day of school and that he expects this year’s participants to spread the word about their experiences. “Once it comes from them in a positive way, the program will take off,” Colon said.
Parents, invited to meet school officials and get an overview of the program, were encouraged by its goals. Cheryl Whitecloud said even though her son Karl Brown isn’t a problem child, a parent can always use some help. “I’m learning just like he is,” she said. And once he shook off the cobwebs from a late summer night of video games, followed by an early wake-up call Tuesday morning, Cameron Cooper counted himself among fans of the workshop. He admitted that
he had discovered something about himself in the process. “I learned I’m kind of lazy,” he said. “I also learned to give stuff a chance. It’s pretty good. I’m glad I came.”
– Steven Goode