From a Whole Child to a Whole Community Approach: One School’s Experiment with Systems Change


WholeChildBannerBy Eleanor Bedford

Whole Community Approach 3-3What students need to succeed often lies beyond classroom walls. This truism drives some teachers to become disillusioned with the system and others to become determined to bring about systems change. Here is a look at the inspiration, motivation, and model that helped turn around one school, positively affecting an entire community in the process.

Eight years ago, Orchards Elementary in Lewiston, Idaho, was plagued by high levels of absenteeism, teacher turnover, and disciplinary problems. It had a reputation for having a waiting list—to transfer out, not in. Today, Orchards has a reputation for excellence. It was recently recognized as a Changemaker School for placing changemaker skills—empathy, teamwork, leadership, and problem solving—on a par with traditional academics.

Ideas and Inspiration

What set these wheels of change in motion? What led Orchards’ principal Kristina Brinkerhoff to do things differently? Applying empathy. Early in her career, she taught at a tribal school for Native Americans where she could “see the heart of these kids and yet the lack of resources for them and their parents had just crushed them.” The staff struggled to provide the resources and environment that was needed, and, in turn, they were frustrated themselves. When she began to teach at Orchards, she saw similar dynamics. Years later, as Orchards’ principal, Brinkerhoff and her leadership team worked diligently to select, retain, and train staff that knew “how to lead from behind, through their love of children,” she explained. The difference she made is captured in two of the schools’ touchstones: “rules without relationships lead to rebellion” and “kids don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

The Harlem Project was another source of inspiration. It was designed to address a conundrum, which Brinkerhoff knew well, that was described in a 2004 New York Times Magazine story: “fix the schools without  fixing the families and the community, and children will fail; but they will also fail if you improve the surrounding community without fixing the schools.” Determined to tackle both, Orchards’ leadership team started a study group on the topic.

Models and Motivation

There are as many different models designed to help transform classroom culture as there are to encourage empathy. The model that worked for Orchards is based on the classic best-seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. When Brinkerhoff first discovered the related book 7 Habits of Happy Kids—and corresponding curriculum called The Leader in Me—she felt “this is what an elementary school should be!” She encouraged other teachers to read the book as part of the study group. Soon, some of them started teaching the seven habits in their classrooms and began asking how they could do more. Brinkerhoff and her team secured a grant from the Panda Cares Foundation. The grant money was used to buy the curriculum and staff and support the first three years of the transformation process. “The real power,” she explained, “came from adults and kids alike having a common language”—a language based on a simple set of core principles, such as the following: first things first; be proactive; begin with the end in mind; think win-win; and seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Within the span of a few years, this “inside out” model of personal transformation had successfully turned around both Orchards’ culture and reputation. Attendance went up. Teacher turnover rates dropped. Academics improved. Disciplinary issues dramatically decreased. Orchards is now a place where people want to work and where students consistently take the lead and take responsibility for their own learning. They also play an active role in the upkeep of their own school and the larger community (each classroom designs two community service projects each year). As a result of this creative and well-rounded approach to student leadership, Orchards is recognized as a Lighthouse School.

Transformation in public schools “typically happens when a strong leader comes in,” Brinkerhoff explained, but “what we did was put a structure in place to make it sustainable.” Throughout the process, her motivation remained the same: making a difference in the lives of children and leading through love. Ultimately, “it is all about relationships . . . [about] trust, love, and empathy . . . [and] learning to have grace with each other and presume positive intent. . . . We don’t [always] do that because of our own narratives.” The Leader in Me model changes the narrative. In the case of Orchards, it started to change a whole system.

Replication and Innovation

Each year, Orchards has a leadership day where it invites community leaders to see what the school does. The head of a local nonprofit was sufficiently inspired by the school’s results and wanted to replicate the model beyond the classroom, for the benefit of families and the community at large. Orchards thus developed an innovative, three-tiered approach to changemaking based on (1) students, (2) their parents, and (3) their parents’ employers. This means that Brinkerhoff not only teaches the seven habits to all incoming teachers, but she also teaches them in workplaces throughout the community. The result is a common language at multiple levels: from community leaders and workplace supervisors to families, teachers, and students. It is a whole community—not just a whole child—approach.

The success of the Leader in Me model lies in activating empathy and evoking the leader, not just in some of us, but in everyone. What models have positively affected your school and community?


Eleanor Bedford is a teacher, coach, and founder of Learning by Design 2C, an organization development and learning strategies consulting firm. She worked in international relief and development for two decades, traveling to more than 40 countries and serving in numerous armed conflicts, where she provided small grants to social entrepreneurs and activists to model positive social change and demonstrate “the art of the possible.” Today, she applies her diverse experience to empower changemakers both at home and abroad by supporting Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative, teaching at American University’s School of International Service, and providing professional coaching—and empathy—to aid workers serving overseas.