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A Can-Do Attitude

“I want you to grow up to be leaders, whether in church…or as President of the United States”—Maria Arias Evans, Principal, Washington Elementary School

Located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the San Jose Unified School District, Washington Elementary School serves a community that struggles daily with undocumented status, drugs, gangs, prostitution, and other crimes. With a student population of 500 in grades K to 5, 95% of the children are Latino, 95% receive free or reduced lunch, and 75% are English Language Learners.


Despite what may first appear as overwhelming educational challenges, over the years school administrators and teachers have championed parent and community involvement, and have made tremendous headway in creating more positive and hopeful futures for many of the school’s first-generation Americans. In fact, last year Washington Elementary moved from the lowest possible State of California ranking among schools with similar demographics and characteristics (a score of 1) to a 10!

Thanks to a connection with Barry and Jackie Posner through Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business community engagement initiative, school principal Maria Arias Evans is now a wonderful exemplar of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.  “How lucky I was to meet Jackie last year,” Maria says. “She has opened so many doors for the children of Washington Elementary.” And after receiving a copy of Barry and Jim Kouzes’ book, The Truth About Leadership, Maria continued, “I noted that its 10 chapters made 10 great monthly themes for the school calendar and have proceeded to work with students, teachers, and parents on how to increase the leadership potential of our school community.”

All Washington Elementary staff and teachers have now read the book and use one new “Truth” each month to guide lesson-planning. Working together they are translating each of the 10 truths into a meaningful statement for both students and the greater community. For instance, they have translated Truth #1—You Make a Difference—into A Can-Do Attitude. They talked about this concept with the kids, creating contests, writing projects, and other activities that helped demonstrate what a “Can-Do Attitude” means to them.   

Dedicated Washington Elementary volunteer Brian O’Halloran is another strong advocate of The Five Practices. A semi-retired senior executive with a major construction firm based in the community, Brian attended a Leadership Challenge program many years ago which he now draws upon in his volunteer work with both students and parents. He currently hosts a leadership club for about 50 fifth-grade boys, and a similar leadership club for fifth-grade girls. In addition, he recently started a leadership training program for parents—mostly non-English speakers, with grade school-only educations.

And this past April, Barry was the featured guest at the school-wide assembly held to help motivate students in advance of their standardized testing period. Greeted by posters and cheers, Barry opened his presentation with an inspiring story culled from The Truth About Leadership: the story of Melissa Poe that clearly demonstrates how an elementary school student can make a difference. After fielding questions, Oprah-style, from Maria and a number of students (including a discussion on how exactly one writes a book), the focus shifted to acknowledging a student from each class who had demonstrated a Can-Do Attitude—for the extra time they have put into preparing for their upcoming tests. Special recognition also was given to a wide variety of special-interest clubs supported by the school, which give every student the opportunity to make a difference. 

 As Jackie Posner observed, “While The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® was initially developed with and for the corporate sector, it certainly is inspiring to see how this powerful leadership model now is inspiring and driving an entire community to develop our next generation of great leaders.”


Marisa Holland Kelley is an Associate Editor for The Leadership Challenge® brand, focusing on training and assessment products, web content, and community programming.


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