WHITE OAK — Dyllon Heist initially chose to take an elective course in leadership to be with his best friend, but the eighth-grader said the class ultimately taught him how to “be a better person.”

“After being in there for a couple of weeks, it was like I’m having fun with Landyn (Grant), plus I’m learning,” Dyllon said. “(Before the class) I was, like, “I’m going to fight everybody,’ but taking the high road’s better. It really taught me to be a better person.”

At White Oak Middle School, about 40 students are either taking a semesterlong course in leadership or career investigations. Assistant Superintendent Mitzi Neely and Principal Becky Balboa give the leadership students that “extra encouragement” to become role models for others and make responsible decisions, Neely said.

Coach Roy Boyett teaches the career investigations course, in which Neely said students go through online modules and take personality and career surveys to help them figure out their career interests. She said Boyett invites professionals every Friday for a question-and-answer session about their careers.

Career investigations students also will attend two job fairs, Balboa said. She said it “gives them a head start” when developing their high school course plan.

Balboa encouraged the students Monday to set goals for themselves and plan for the future. Leaders make decisions with an end in mind, she said.

“With middle school, especially, it’s so easy for them to take that wrong path because ... they want to belong desperately,” Balboa said. “We want them to be the right type of leader, so we’re trying to instill some things into them throughout the semester to help them grow.”

After only four weeks, Neely said there’s been a positive “mindset shift” among the leadership students.

“I had a student that came to me at the beginning of class that said, ‘I just wanted you to know that I had a situation, and I wanted you to know how I handled it.’ It was the total opposite of what he would’ve done four weeks ago, and he said, ‘It’s just about taking the high road ... and not give in to what the negativity is,’” Neely said.

Eighth-grader Emma Hill said so far she’s learned how to react to dire situations “in a good way.” Emma isn’t really outgoing, she said, and she thought the course would help her “work on ... (her) personality.”

To honor White Oak service people and commemorate 9/11, the leadership students teamed up with the Student Council on Tuesday to provide meals for the police and fire departments, Emma said.

Landyn, also in the eighth grade, said the course and community service project benefits his classmates.

“I think (the community service project) will help us be more thankful for what they do for us,” Landyn said.

The project shows “a great respect for what they do,” Dyllon said.

In addition to leadership skills, Neely said they use author and financial adviser Dave Ramsey’s “Foundations in Personal Finance” to teach fiscal responsibility.

“We’re supposed to be learning about financing or something like that, and I think that would be good for us to help us ... when we’re older,” Landyn said.

When asked if he’d encourage younger students to take the course, Dyllon said, “Everybody should have at least a good teacher like Mrs. Neely in their lives. ... You want that guidance, and Mrs. Neely can give it to you.”

Reporter

Brittany Michelle Williams, a University of Arkansas alumna, serves East Texas as an education reporter at the News-Journal. She won Arkansas Press Association and Arkansas AP Media Editors awards for her work in El Dorado, Arkansas.