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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Mountainville Academy fifth-graders Libby Thornley and Bree Dunn watch a Coke bottle with Mentos candy inside of it explode during a science project on Friday, April 1, 2011.

ALPINE — Just a few years ago, Mountainville Academy was over budget and losing student enrollment and teacher respect. Today, there are 600 students on a waiting list and the school will add another grade in the fall.

What changed? Principal Emma Bullock says just about everything.

"Over the course of a year, we saw an entirely different school come out," she said.

The 5-year-old public charter school in Alpine opened in 2006. Within the first two years it was in the red financially and laying off staff. Parents were upset, teachers were worried and the negativity was rubbing off on the students.

"Basically, the climate and culture of our school was off course," Bullock said. "We were really being stifled in our progress due to the negative, toxic culture."

Bullock took the helm of the school in 2009, inheriting those problems. Right away, she brainstormed ways to solve the problems at the school. She heard about a program that focused on the "whole child." But rather than focus on teaching the children the program, she trained herself, fellow administrators and the school's board.

"Over time we saw a tremendous change in our faculty and staff," she said.

The program, called Leader In Me, is marketed by Franklin Covey. But it was developed by an elementary principal in the eastern United States who was seeking answers to the problems at her school. She created her own system based on Stephen Covey's book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."

"We didn't make this up. It came out of necessity," said Sean Covey, executive vice president for global solutions and partnerships at Franklin Covey.

The program focuses on leadership skills, cooperation and self-confidence in addition to academics.

"It's a paradigm that says 'turn the school over to the children,'" Covey said. "It's a different world view."

When visitors come to a Leader in Me school, the students show them around, not a principal or teacher. And parent-teacher conferences include input and conversation with the student, who is often left out of the discussion at other schools.

Bullock said that after getting the staff at Mountainville Academy on board, they introduced the program to the children. Since then, there have been across-the-board real, tangible improvements, she said.

"If you begin with character, if you begin with the inside of a person ... then everything else is kind of a symptom of that," Bullock said.

In the past year, discipline referrals have gone down by 57 percent, she said, and no one has been suspended. The school saw a marked improvement in its science assessment scores, and it's focusing even more on language arts. What's more, the students and staff take pride in the school.

"We've got people that are really trying to be proactive," she said.

"Proactive" is part of the "common language" used at the school, which fans of the seven habits would recognize.

"Even kindergartners say things like, 'I need to be proactive,'" Covey said. Other concepts such as everyone can be winners, seek to understand others and "synergy" are also incorporated.

The school isn't perfect, Bullock said, but it's a far cry from where things were a few years ago. Earlier this week, it was recognized by Franklin Covey for being an example of all schools nationwide that use the program. It was also selected as one of two Utah State Schools of Character for 2011 by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Center for Community and Caring.

"It's just an extremely positive place," she said. "The happiness is measurable."

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com