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Harper for Kids Building the Next Generation of Leaders through Character Education

By Jeffrey Webb

John Wooden, the longtime UCLA basketball coach, may best be remembered for leading his teams to ten NCAA national championships within a twelve-year period. Though he died in 2010, Wooden’s legacy still resonates, far beyond the world of sports. 

Harper for Kids (HFK), a San Francisco nonprofit founded in 2008, works with schools to incorporate Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success into curriculum, character education, and extracurricular activities. And just as Wooden changed the way his teams defined success on the basketball court, HFK is changing the way teachers, students, and parents define success within the classroom.

“We want children to believe in themselves, not to worry about what other people are doing, saying, or what they have, but to focus on being at their best each and every day,” said Tim Harper, who co-founded HFK along with his wife, Peanut Louie Harper. 

As Louie Harper put it: “We want to put a dent in the thinking that success is first place, a 4.0 average, being perfect.”

In 1934, Wooden, then an English teacher, began working at Indiana’s South Bend Central High School. In addition to teaching, Wooden coached the school’s basketball team. During this time, he grew frustrated with the traditional concept of success, that success in the classroom meant the highest grade and success on the court meant the highest score. So Wooden coined his own definition: “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming.” 

Wooden spent the next fourteen years developing and refining the Pyramid of Success, his template outlining the character traits essential to reaching one’s personal best, traits such as industriousness, enthusiasm, and cooperation. When he left Indiana to coach at UCLA, Wooden took the Pyramid with him. With the Pyramid of Success as their foundation, Wooden and his teams won those aforementioned ten championships.

In 2003, Louie Harper collaborated with Wooden on a children’s book, along with Wooden’s frequent co-author, Steve Jamison. The book, Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success, relates Wooden’s philosophy to a younger audience. At book signings following its publication, many teachers approached the authors and explained how they were using the book within their classrooms. 

“Coach Wooden’s message to kids can be life-changing,” Louie Harper said.

“Someday, these students will try out for a team, apply for a school, apply for a job, and it’s their character that will make a difference. Teaching kids about good character at an early age is paramount to growing up with a strong and healthy mindset,” said her husband.

Because of teacher enthusiasm for Inch and Miles at those book signings, and because of their own fondness for Wooden and the Pyramid, the Harpers started HFK. Initially the organization was only in a few schools throughout California. Now, thirteen years later, HFK is presently active in over seventy schools in California and in states as far as Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, Ohio and West Virginia.

The nonprofit provides professional development opportunities for schools interested in their organization. They work with educators designing lessons around the Pyramid of Success; for instance, a social studies class might study historical figures personifying certain blocks on the Pyramid. HFK provides materials and posters of the Pyramid to students and teachers, and has even painted murals of the Pyramid on the walls of partner schools. The core of HFK’s programming, and what makes them unique, is their assemblies on the “Pyramid of Success” for students (in person and virtually via Zoom video conferencing). HFK brings in guest speakers such as Olympic champions, professional athletes (Louie Harper herself is a retired professional tennis player), scientists, engineers, artists, and more, to speak to the students and inspire them with their stories of how they’ve achieved success in their lives. 

Though they currently serve mostly elementary schools, HFK also works with middle and high schools and adapts programs accordingly. 

HFK has been adopted as a character education curriculum by schools where the majority have a 60-95% free/reduced lunch population.

For California’s Vanalden Avenue Elementary, a school with a remarkably high Latino and ELL population, the Pyramid of Success provides a “common language” when addressing behavior issues, according to Principal Yoshim Yang.

Vanalden has been using HFK in their school for five years, since Yang’s first year as principal. Yang initially discovered Wooden and the Pyramid of Success during college, reading one of the many books written by Wooden and Jamison. As a teacher, and now as a principal, Yang draws upon Wooden’s beliefs to guide her own educational practices.

At Vanalden, characters from Inch and Miles are painted throughout the school, as are the blocks of the Pyramid. Adults in the building reward students with success tickets for demonstrating a trait from the Pyramid, and these tickets can be entered into a weekly drawing to earn prizes and recognition. In addition, each month is themed around a specific trait from the Pyramid and teachers deliver lessons based upon that theme.

“It’s not just for our students,” Yang said. “Teachers, parents, and staff are all living out the philosophy of the Pyramid. We are all striving to be our very best.”

Heather Voda, a second grade teacher at Vanalden, echoed Yang’s sentiments. 

“In having a schoolwide program like we do now, we have parents that recognize the success of their child and also of the other children that attend school with their child,” Voda said. “I think the unique part is that this is not a competition, yet winners are celebrated daily.”

“Before we had this program, there wasn’t the common language and culture that teachers, students, administrators, and parents could utilize. Now, the Pyramid of Success has made us a true community with all of us striving for our individual and collective personal bests,” said Khia Silberkleit, a second and third grade teacher at Vanalden.

Wayne Leach, principal at Bracher Elementary in Santa Clara, California, also recognizes the benefits of HFK and the Pyramid. For Leach, the Pyramid of Success teaches vitally important skills not covered within a school’s typical curriculum.

“One thing we [many educators] don’t do is teach these skills,” Leach said, referring to the traits covered by the Pyramid of Success. “But these skills are all things that will make you a better person.”

At Bracher, every classroom has a Pyramid poster on the wall. Each week, Leach holds an assembly for the entire school, where he reads a storybook to students and discusses how it relates to the Pyramid. 

For Leach, like Yang, the biggest impact he sees HFK having in his school is in areas of behavior. When students misbehave, it is easy to connect their misbehavior to a block on the Pyramid, to give them a specific area to focus on for improvement.

“So much of character education focuses on bullying,” Leach said, “but the Pyramid has more to it. The Pyramid talks about teamwork, hard work, things every child can relate to.”

When students in a physical education class were exhibiting poor sportsmanship, Leach spoke to them using the language of the Pyramid. “Your competitors today might be your teammates tomorrow,” Leach said to the students.

Leach said the Pyramid prompts one to ask, “How do we win well as well as lose well?”

“The Pyramid can be blended into any behavioral system, at any level,” Leach said. “Elementary, middle, high school. Of course, John Wooden used it pretty well on the college level.”

At California’s Chapman Hills Elementary, HFK is used in conjunction with the school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions Support (PBIS) program. The school’s mascot is a bobcat, and at Chapman Hills students are taught that “Bobcats ROAR,” with ROAR serving as an acronym of positive behavior traits. In other words, students are taught to be respectful, organized, have appropriate attitude, and be responsible. With HFK, Chapman Hills has tied the blocks of the Pyramid to the letters in ROAR.

In addition, each month at Chapman Hills students are taught a different trait from the Pyramid. Students also use something called “think sheets” for when misbehavior occurs, the sheets asking students to reflect on what Pyramid trait was not demonstrated in a given situation and how that student can improve such behavior for future occasions.

“It’s important to me to have conversations with students about how their behavior affects others as well as themselves. If a student receives a discipline referral for poor behavioral choices it’s important to follow our PBIS protocol as well as have a discussion about character traits,” said Chapman Hills principal Jana Saenz. “The Pyramid of Success helps us get there.”

Principal Saenz added, “As a school that doesn’t have a ton of budgetary leeway, Harper for Kids has been key to bringing such a vetted program to our school.”

The Harpers offer HFK to schools as a totally free program. They do not want a price tag to prohibit schools from adopting their services. 

“There is no monetary cost,” Louie Harper said. “It’s a higher price. Commitment.”

Though HFK has been in over a hundred schools within their thirteen-year history, the Harpers are not concerned about numbers. “It’s about quality over quantity,” Louie Harper said.

According to the HFK website, schools partnered with HFK demonstrate a significant decline in disciplinary referrals, bullying incidents, and school suspensions. But for the Harpers, as for John Wooden, results are secondary to effort. Success, after all, is not measured by a score or a grade.

“People are always focused on the goal and forget the effort,” Louie Harper said. “We want kids to be their best and be proud of it.”

For more information regarding HFK, you can visit their website or follow them on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. You may also visit John Wooden’s official website.

Jeffrey Webb is a middle school teacher from Charleston, West Virginia. Jeffrey initially discovered and used Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success while he was coaching his school’s track team. In the classroom, Jeffrey, like Coach Wooden, grew frustrated with the notion that a student’s letter grade indicated success. Jeffrey asked himself, “Can a student get a good grade without learning much?” and “Can a student get a bad grade while learning a lot?” It was this question that prompted Jeffrey to further consider the way Wooden’s Pyramid of Success could impact not only sports but also the classroom environment. As Jeffrey sought out resources utilizing Wooden’s philosophy in an educational setting, he discovered Harper for Kids. Both as a writer and as an educator, Jeffrey felt it was necessary to get the word out about HFK to as many educators as possible. Thus, he took it upon himself to write this piece profiling HFK and their impact upon partner schools.

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