Meet Linda Michalski, chairperson of Theology and a member of the administrative team at Benedictine Academy, a private, all-girls inner-city high school in Elizabeth, New Jersey. A devoted Zappos.com customer, Linda devoured the Delivering Happiness book, finding all kinds of correlations between the journey of Zappos and her struggling school.
At the time, Benedictine had an enrollment of 165 students. The average cost to attend the school is roughly $6700 and the teachers who work there are lucky to earn half of what public school teachers do. Throw in a national economic crisis and it's easy to see how finances can impact enrollment, staff motivation, and long-term strategies.
What's more, a significant percentage of Benedictine students are eligible for federal subsidy and many come from very challenging situations. "The kids," Linda says, “need a sense of empowerment.” And parents need a school that can make a difference.
The dedication and loyalty of the Benedictine Sisters and staff, combined with a deep belief in young people, are the driving force behind this small school and its mighty impact.
What Linda drew from Delivering Happiness is that “happiness really means living at a higher level in the way you think of yourself and how you are being called to make a difference in the world.”
"It's a Cinderella Story. And Zappos was our Prince Charming."
Soon, Ken Jennings, the principal at Benedictine, was reading the book and then Zappos sent books to all of the staff. What initially seemed like light-hearted reading to many ultimately translated into a "[delivering happiness] fever, in the best sense.”
Taking their cue from the book, teachers and administrators focused on translating the 100-year-old school mission statements into contemporary language. Then, the recruiting strategy changed. Prospective students as well as classroom guests were treated to a WOW experience which included crowns and VIP buttons, magic swords, special cards, and poems.
“The idea was to do the remarkable," said Linda. "Education is a day-to-day interaction with the student as customer. And it's the school's job to motivate the students to peak performance.”
A sense of service to others brought the school to the next level. "It is a Cinderella story," as Linda tells it. "And Zappos was our Prince Charming.” Benedictine chose to address human trafficking by adopting a school in the Ukraine and raising awareness in schools across the country. A dime from each student would allow them to adopt the equivalent of one school. The kids decided to adopt ten.
The Jefferson Award
“We successfully shifted the typical young attitude from apathy and entitlement to passion and empowerment,” Linda notes. “Our students are truly happy to do something to make our world a better place."
Evidence that the cultural shift had firmly taken hold occurred one day at a highly competitive, semi-finals track meet where a member of the opposing team collapsed on the track as her own teammates ran past her. It was a Benedictine runner who came to her aid and soon the rest of the Benedictine team followed suit.
In June of 2011, Benedictine Academy was awarded the Jefferson Award Gold Medal for Public Service, an award co-founded by Jacqueline Onassis. Linda likens it to the "Nobel Prize for Service.” It may come as no surprise that Benedictine ended up winning a contest to help a charity of their choice and donated their $42,000 in winnings to the Jefferson Award.
Linda and staff hope that their school "becomes the model for other low and middle income educational systems to follow." Plans are underway to create a DH-based curriculum and a Delivering Happiness handbook.
What makes Linda happy is seeing the students and staff happy and full of passion. "Interestingly enough," says Linda, "the root of our school's name (Benedictine) is 'benedictus' which means "HAPPINESS!"