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Retiree Helps Students Lead, Practice Kindness at Belle Sherman

Retirement didn’t keep Marilyn Ewing away from Belle Sherman Elementary for long – as a volunteer, she now coordinates initiatives that have empowered students to practice kindness and leadership skills.
Ewing, who taught at Belle Sherman for 37 years, facilitates conflict management and composting programs, and guides older students who lead their younger peers in making the school a better place.
“I love it at Belle Sherman,” she said. “There are really diverse kids and excellent teachers and staff, and they are great to work with.”
Just months after retiring, Ewing returned to coordinate the conflict management program, which built upon work she’d started while still teaching. She recruited fifth graders to mediate conflicts between younger students during recess, using techniques that encourage respect, listening, and working together to solve problems.
Ewing expected the fifth graders to turn into better mediators, but was pleasantly surprised to see many of the students taking leadership a step further. On their own, students developed a program to teach kindness to second and third graders, with the aim of reducing conflict before it needed to be mediated. The fifth graders talk to younger students about the kind things they did recently, then ask them how they can also be kind.
Students also began presenting on kindness at all-school meetings and taking a leadership role in those assemblies, welcoming students and staff and going over rules and etiquette. Fifth graders also walk younger students to and from assemblies and specials, helping them practice proper hallway behavior.
The leadership initiatives started a wave of kindness among the older students, Ewing said. Last spring, a fifth-grade girl anonymously wrote positive messages on sticky notes and hid them for students and teachers to find. That act inspired another student to come in early to sharpen pencils, which led to yet another student staying late to clean up the classroom. Ewing and others are now working to implement a “pay-it-forward” program.
Watching students take initiative to help others is “uplifting,” said Ewing, who gardens and visits with her children in her spare time. “It keeps me coming back.”
Starting this fall, Ewing began leading students in facilitating Belle Sherman’s lunchtime composting program after the school became a model for composting and recycling. Student volunteers stand at disposal tubs and ensure waste is placed in the proper places, working alongside Ewing and custodial staff to ensure the compost doesn’t become contaminated.
The students have embraced the job and are even teaching second and third graders how to sort their trash. “They are so responsible and so committed to doing it right,” Ewing said. “They are really amazing. They just take over completely now. They think of things that would make it better.”
Instead of being excited to be “king of the mountain” in their fifth-grade year, many of Belle Sherman’s oldest students now look forward to seeing which leadership initiative they’ll participate in, Ewing said.
“I think we’ve changed the attitudes to make them want to be leaders now,” she said. “I hope that sticks.”

Belle Sherman
Beverly J Martin
Cayuga Heights
Fall Creek
South Hill
Boynton Middle
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Ithaca HS
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Ithaca City School District
Dr. Luvelle Brown, Superintendent
400 Lake Street
Ithaca, NY 14850
(607) 274-2101