A Business Plan for School Success

Leanna Skarnulis
May 25, 2001

The cheers of Angary Smith and her fellow sixth graders join those from the packed auditorium. They're rooting for Winners Circle honorees like themselves, students from kindergarten through sixth grade who have achieved their individual academic goals. Parents rush forward with cameras when their children's names are announced. The children walk proudly across the stage to have a medal placed around their necks, to shake hands with the adults on stage and to drop sheets of paper listing their goals in a drum for a prize drawing.

"I especially like to see the little kids," Angary says. "They walk all nice and straight."

Angary (pronounced An-ju-RAY) is a veteran by now, having made every quarterly Winners Circle since she first came to Belvedere Academy in fifth grade. The school, located in the inner city of Omaha, Nebr., has about 500 students today, 80 percent of them African-American and 80 percent from families with low enough incomes that they qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch.

When the Winners Circle program was launched in 1996, the school ranked 55th out of 57 schools in the Omaha (Nebraska) Public School District. Principal Carol Ellis explains that the ranking is handicapped, factoring in not only test scores but also such things as attendance and the percentage of students who receive free and reduced-cost lunch. Three years later, using the same yardstick, the school ranked 15th.

She attributes much of the success to Jerry and Cookie Hoberman, a white couple who have taken on the job of motivating Belvedere's students to do better in school by using techniques similar to the ones they used with their employees.

"We're a far different school today than when we first met Jerry and Cookie," Ellis says.

It all began when Jerry moved the headquarters of his struggling tire business to the inner city in 1994. The move was a business success: reduced overhead and the use of management tools to motivate employees allowed Jerry to turn the business around. With his business prospering, Ellis was approached by local African-American leaders who challenged him to give back to the community, and led him to the school.

Ellis was assistant principal at the time. "I remember before we showed him around the building, he said, 'Looks like you could use new playground equipment,'" she says.

She explained the school's desperate need for computers. After sixth grade, most Belvedere students go on to a neighborhood junior high school that is a computer/math magnet attracting students from across the district. Yet many Belvedere students had never touched a keyboard.

"I remember Jerry coming home after that visit and telling me what he saw," Cookie says. "He was stunned. The things we had taken for granted when our children went to public schools, they simply didn't have at Belvedere." Cookie agreed with Jerry that his Tires, Inc., business should adopt the school.

"You look at kids in a school ranked 55th, they're intelligent, and you say, Why?'" Jerry says. "The first thing we needed to do was even the playing field. They needed computers."

A fund-raising carnival brought in enough money to outfit a lab with about 25 computers, furniture and software. The money came from booth sponsorships of $200, $500 and $1,000 solicited from area businesses. Carnival events were nominally priced so that children and their families could afford to attend.

Following the carnival, the Hobermans turned their attention to systemic issues. They believed that the motivational tools that worked in business could be adapted to create a climate for academic success.

Working closely with Ellis, they proposed changing the school's name to Belvedere Academy of Learning and adopting voluntary school uniforms for students and teachers, which they would raise funds to subsidize. Parents voted to accept the changes, which were designed to foster a sense that the school was special and build a spirit of teamwork.

"I remember they polled parents to see what we thought of uniforms," Dorarena Smith says. She and her husband, Mark, have six children, two of whom are Belvedere students today. A third is a former Belvedere student now in high school. "I'm all for the uniforms. It makes the kids look neat, and I think how a person is dressed is how they feel. Also it cuts down the cost of buying clothes."

Next the Hobermans moved on to goal-setting and rewards, the heart of the program's success.

Winners Circle

"Jerry was always genuinely interested in his employees," Cookie says. " Every employee always had a goal, and employees who met their goals each month went to a Winners Circle party. His company began having problems after he began delegating more and became disconnected. When he took it back over, he could never understand why management dropped the Winners Circle. Knowing how successful the Winners Circle was for the business, we thought it would translate to the school."

"What Jerry has brought to us from the business world is what he was successful with in his business," Ellis says. "We've translated that to our building by having every child set a reading and math goal every nine-week quarter. The teachers work with testing data to set goals that are individual and realistic."

Smith saw a difference in her oldest son, Jared, after the Winners Circle was launched. "It gave him something to shoot for," she says. Her younger sons, Xavier in fifth grade and Jason in second grade, know it's important to reach their goals.

"Each child has goals according to their ability, and each time, there's a higher expectation put on them," Smith says. "They're expected to push themselves based on their own ability. That's what I like about it. That's what makes it work."

Encouragement at home and school has always been a vital component of the program. A copy of the goal is sent home to parents so they can offer support at home. "If someone articulates that they are going to do something, they're more inclined to do it," Cookie says

She also came up with an Olympics-inspired motto: "Going for my goal, going for the gold."

Students who attained their goals were invited along with their families to a Winners Circle celebration. Today 92 percent achieve their goals, and 800 to 1,000 people attend the quarterly celebration.

Recognizing Teachers and Support Staff

To recognize teachers' roles in their students' achievements, an incentive plan was adopted. A teacher can earn up to $1,000 a year in bonuses—a $200 bonus for each quarter in which at least 80 percent of the class attains its goals, and an additional $200 for making the bonus all four quarters. In the year following the launch of the incentive plan, student qualification for the Winners Circle grew from 66 percent to 90 percent.

A year-end banquet recognizes administrative, teaching, secretarial, custodial, security and cafeteria personnel for the parts they play in the children's success. One year, the State Commissioner of Education was guest speaker.

"At the elementary level, this is unheard of," Ellis says. "There just aren't the resources. When people got the invitation to the first banquet, their jaws dropped."

Good Citizenship Rewarded

Ellis estimates that she used to spend 80 percent of her time on discipline. That time has been cut in half since working with the Hobermans on programs to reward good behavior. At the end of the week, Ellis holds a Popcorn Party for all students who have not been called into her office for discipline that week. At the end of the quarter, there's a Homeroom Party for children who've qualified for at least five Popcorn Parties. They can bring their own board games, or sometimes a magician or storyteller provides entertainment.

Fourth and fifth graders who make all four Homeroom Parties get a special year-end reward. Fourth graders go on a day camp outing to Platte River State Park, where they can ride horses, climb the observation tower and do crafts. Fifth graders go on a weekend overnight camping trip to Camp Cedars.

Another reward was added last year for students who make all Winners Circles and Homeroom Parties. Kindergarten through third-grade children go to the IMAX Theater, and fourth and fifth graders go to a Nebraska University home football game the following fall, courtesy of Paul and Patti Aaron of Pinnacle Sports Productions.

A Life of Its Own

In 1998, the Hobermans sold their business, continuing to sponsor Belvedere on their own. Then they adopted a second school, Saratoga. Programs for the two schools cost between $170,000 and $180,000 per year.

The Hobermans have devoted much time to soliciting funding for the programs, and three sources—the Dick and Mary Holland, Livingston, and Lozier family foundations—have provided a large portion of the underwriting.

After the first three years, the program began to get a life of its own. Now there is a formalized giving structure that ranges from $50 to provide uniforms for one student to $5,000 to be a benefactor. The tax-deductible donations go to the Belvedere/Omaha Schools Foundation.

The Hobermans and Ellis agree that the strides they've made at Belvedere are the result of a team effort, involving students, parents, teachers, administrators, the Hobermans and benefactors.

The Hobermans talk of retiring to Florida but keep putting it off. Now they have another reason to stick around. At the end of 2000, they accepted a $50,000 gift from the Blumkin Family Foundation to adopt Conestoga School.

Next year Angary will go on to McMillan Junior High School, the computer/math magnet school. She's naturally a little nervous about junior high, but what about using computers?

"I got really good on computers," she says.

The Hobermans welcome queries from anyone interested in knowing more about their program.