Success Story

The Leader in Me: A.B. Combs Leadership
Elementary School 

2014 Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Awardee

A.B. Combs Leadership Elementary in Wake County embodies a learning-centered model that strives for leadership development in its students based on Dr. Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It is the only magnet school to have earned the Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Distinguished Merit Award twice – first in 2006 and then in 2014. The leadership model at A.B. Combs gained widespread recognition in 2008 through Dr. Covey’s book The Leader in Me, and since the program’s conception in 1999, it has been replicated in over 1,400 schools around the world.

The Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Award is considered the top magnet school award in the nation and commemorates Magnet Schools of America’s founding member. A.B. Combs has also been selected as a School of Distinction in 2013 and 2010 and a School of Excellence in 2012 and 2011. It is the recipient of numerous other awards and achievements as well, including recognition for individual students and teachers.

The Leadership Model Program

A.B. Combs integrates Dr. Covey’s philosophies into every class, co-curricular activity, and the school culture. The goal is to help students develop a skill set to succeed in the 21st century based on the mastery of the 7 Habits: 1) Be Proactive, 2) Begin With the End in Mind, 3) Put First Things First, 4) Think Win-Win, 5) Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood, 6) Synergize, 7) Sharpen the Saw, and Dr. Covey’s 8th Habit, “Find Your Voice”. These are put into action through such practices as “Synergizing through community service projects”, “Seeking First To Understand in peer conflict mediation”, and “Beginning With the End in Mind by writing to universities to support [the leadership model]”. Along with internalizing the 7 Habits, the leadership model empowers students to take ownership over their development and growth. It fosters high academic achievement and helps students cultivate effective goal setting for leadership and accountability. Additionally, A.B. Combs offers a variety of co-curricular activities spanning language clubs, the arts, and academic competitions through which students may further pursue leadership development.

The school’s instructional practices are specially tailored to deliver the leadership model while aligning with local, state, and national standards and the Common Core. All students are taught through Project-Based Learning (PBL), in which students design, complete, and assess their own projects for an extended time to investigate a question.[1] PBL at A.B. Combs “challenges [students] to analyze real and relevant problems from a multi-dimensional approach,” and the results are “rich academic experiences for [students] that reflect both rigor and projects that offer students authentic, hands-on experiences.” Examples of past projects include using LEGO Robotics to show how animals adapt to their environments, applying Rube Goldberg’s engineering and research to learn core curricular objectives, and learning about the market economy by simulating a community storefront within the classroom. Also, A.B. Combs particularly works to integrate STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) into all elements of PBL and instruction. Meanwhile, performance goals derived from the Baldrige business practices and adjusted for leadership development in young children guide achievement Students track their progress in data notebooks that include personal and academic Wildly Important Goals (WIGs) and reflection entries.[2]

Additionally, teachers receive extensive professional development in the leadership model. All teachers and certified staff members are trained in Dr. Covey’s 7 Habits and participate in nationally recognized programs for continuous improvement. Partnerships with the LEGO Corporation, North Carolina State University, and Tufts University have also facilitated ongoing professional development for innovative practices to teach STEAM. [To check out A.B. Combs’ theme essentials, click here.]

A.B. Combs’ Excellence as a Magnet

Diversity is a central aspect at A.B. Combs. Wake County has historically worked to integrate schools and used magnets to desegregate racially isolated schools in downtown Raleigh. The district aims to “create and sustain schools that are both racially and economically diverse”, and A.B. Combs serves as one example of such a school. Its racial and ethnic makeup is close to that of the district, as is the percentage of students who are eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch.

Instruction is offered to all students regardless of background, including those with special educational needs and English Language Learners (ELL). At-risk students and those with learning needs receive targeted instruction through an inclusion model, in which students meet in small groups within the classroom that allow for collaboration in a safe space. A.B. Combs also boasts the largest elementary international student body in the district with 68 different ethnic groups as of 2013. Such a diverse group promotes a globally-minded school culture and facilitates students’ awareness of the benefits of diversity. Daily interactions with people from around the world through virtual field trips, cultural arts assemblies, a teacher exchange program with Indonesia, and Mandarin Chinese as a supplemental language further serve to foster global thinking and diversity.

Moreover, innovative instructional strategies have helped A.B. Combs to narrow racial and economic achievement gaps. Teachers use a variety of assessments, such as rubrics, formal and informal assessments, and data charts, to track student growth and mastery, and data- and web-based tools help them keep track of student growth. A.B. Combs also uses Response-to-Intervention (RTI)[3] to identify and support students with special learning needs. Certified intervention teachers scaffold core classes and provide struggling students with both pull-out and inclusion cluster groups. Another strategy that has been particularly effective is teacher collaboration through the use of instructional rounds. Teachers observe their colleagues in rotation and share, collaborate, and demonstrate best practices for raising academic achievement for all students.

A.B. Combs has also succeeded in engaging parents, families, and the community. The school maintains partnerships with multiple local and non-local entities for the benefit of its students. Group tutoring is made possible with help from local churches and the YMCA, and North Carolina State University, Tufts University, and the LEGO Corporation contribute to professional development initiatives. The school has also formed partnerships with FranklinCovey, IBM, Panda Express, Allscripts, and the North Carolina Food Bank. A.B. Combs works to keep parents engaged as well; the school hosts an annual Parent Summit for parents to express what they want for their children in addition to a 7 Habits parent training and parent tutoring programs.

A.B. Combs At Work

Alicia Osborne’s parents considered a number of schools for their daughter before selecting A.B. Combs’s leadership program over an arts-themed magnet. However, the program has not dampened or shifted her interest in art, but rather encouraged it. A.B. Combs has provided Alicia with numerous avenues through which to channel her love for art, and her parents say that “[t]he wonderful staff there have embraced Alicia’s creativity and allowed her to grow and expand.” The leadership model even empowered Alicia to audition for the talent show despite her stage fright. “She’s learning courage, how to advocate for herself, and strive for what she wants,” her mother wrote in a letter to MSA. Alicia has also been influenced greatly by the various authors and musicians hosted by A.B. Combs, and visits by illustrators inspired her to write and illustrate her own stories.

“It’s so hard to hand your precious child over to someone else for such a large chunk of their day,” her mother wrote. “But I have never once worried about Alicia at Combs. I know every single staff member has her best interests at heart. They are teaching her to be a leader.”

You can learn more about A.B. Combs by watching this National Institute for Magnet School Leadership webinar featuring the school's principal and magnet coordinator. 

[1] Buck Institute for Education. “What is Project Based Learning (PBL)?” Retrieved from 

[2] A.B. Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary School. “Data Notebooks.” Retrieved from

[3] The National Center for Learning Disabilities, Inc. “What is RTI?” Retrieved from

Posted August 2014