‘Schools of Character’ Demonstrate a Path to Education Reform

In December 2012, Scarlett Lewis lost her 6-year-old son Jesse in the Newtown, CT Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. While Americans cried in anguish and shouted in anger at the violence of another mass shooting, Scarlett processed her grief differently. She chose to focus on living with compassion and forgiveness in Jesse’s memory, and determined that by offering every child more love and understanding, more leadership and empathy, there might never be another Sandy Hook-like tragedy. Scarlett founded the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement and has worked diligently all over the U.S. helping educators, parents, and students create caring communities.

For six years, Scarlett has championed character development and social-emotional learning. Now she is the newest board member for Character.org, a national character development nonprofit that provides resources and coaching for schools, organizations, and individuals. Founded in 1993, Character.org is best known for certifying successful character initiatives in schools across the country using The 11 Principles of Character, a research-based framework for fostering ethical, compassionate school communities. Since 1998, Character.org has certified over 500 National Schools of Character and positively affected over 3 million people.

A Path to Improvement

Becoming a National School of Character is no simple feat, however. The school must not only effectively implement all 11 Principles within the classrooms, on the sports fields, and at home; stakeholders must prove they have done so through a rigorous application process with narrative, quantitative data, and interviews. The work is challenging, and it takes most schools 3-5 years to fully embed their practices before reaching National School of Character status. Yet, thousands of individuals across the country pore over previous applications and evaluator feedback every year continually trying to improve. These educators, parents, students, and other community members don’t spend all this time seeking a title. They’re seeking the benefits of a truly supportive and challenging environment in which every individual feels cared for and valued as a decision-maker.

The work is challenging, and it takes most schools 3-5 years to fully embed their practices before reaching National School of Character status.

Muskogee High School in Oklahoma earned National School of Character status in 2011, but only a few years before the school was a vastly different place. When students made regional news for rioting at a pep rally in 2008, the school board knew they needed to find a way to address the root cause of behavioral issues—not just the symptoms that kept emerging. Unfortunately, they didn’t know where to start. With state and federal grants, the Muskogee community researched any and all climate and culture reform programs, curricula and the like. Then, Sheril Morgan, the school’s counselor, discovered the 11 Principles.

The framework was open enough that Muskogee staff could determine their own implementation plan, and it worked as a rubric with which to evaluate their initiatives and adjust accordingly. Soon Muskogee High started making the news again, this time for their successes. While staff, students, and parents understood the value of the 11 Principles and the Schools of Character application process, Sheril Morgan took it a step further a few years later. She is now Character.org’s Schools of Character Director managing the program on a national scale. Under her leadership, State and National Schools of Character continue to grow each year. Additionally, more schools than ever are recertifying after their five-year designation expires proving the point of being a School of Character is a growth mindset and the drive to keep improving. When asked why school culture is the answer to our national education challenges, Sheril replied,

“Schools are challenged each day to equip students for jobs that aren’t even reality yet. Society and technology are constantly evolving and becoming more complex. We’re charged with teaching students how to learn and collaborate with people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs. More than anything, students must be able to make decisions based on values that help their community.”

She concluded, “With intentional culture development, we can help foster the empathy, service, and continued learning necessary to succeed in the world tomorrow.”

Autonomy Cultivates Academic Learning

Some suggest that a focus on character development in schools hinders the academic learning schools are built to foster, but Principle 6 covers that critique by emphasizing the importance of “a meaningful and challenging academic curriculum” that accommodates diverse learners. The trick is embedding it all together. When students feel cared for and have some autonomy to determine what and how they learn, they tend to perform better academically. Former Busch Middle School student Noor explained the importance of differentiation and the supportive climate at her 2016 National School of Character during her interview with the School of Character evaluator: “All the teachers and staff care about the students. I know that if I ever needed help on a subject, the teacher would be there to help. Teachers understand not everyone is on the same level of learning, so they make lessons plans that are specified for every class but still challenge students in a way that helps them grow and learn.”

The true basis of The 11 Principles of Character is systemic organizational change, to positively affect each individual within the organization, as well as the whole. By prioritizing shared leadership among administration, teachers, support staff, parents, students, and other community members, everyone feels included and has a part to play in the school’s success. Together, these stakeholders can determine their core values, what they most want to embody and work toward. Students of any age should feel empowered to make decisions and understand the importance of developmentally-appropriate service to others and the community. It’s not only about the kids though. Adults have to serve as role models and live out their core values in the ways they interact with others as well. A real School of Character reaches everyone within the building and permeates outward.

Schools of Character often experience higher teacher retention rates, better attendance, fewer discipline referrals, and fewer instances of bullying.

Character.org cites that Schools of Character often experience higher teacher retention rates, better attendance, fewer discipline referrals, and fewer instances of bullying. Simply put, at a time when so many teachers are leaving the profession, in these schools staff, students, and parents want to be there and work hard to support one another. Schools of Character are not without their problems of course, but they possess the necessary tools to overcome those challenges. When a student treats another badly, administration has the student reflect on their choices and what they could have done differently rather than punitive discipline. Much like Scarlett Lewis’s message, Schools of Character focus on remediation, restorative practices, and forgiveness.

Schools of Character Have Legitimate Challenges

While most evidence suggests character development in schools is worth all the effort, fostering a more positive climate takes years to achieve, only becoming more challenging if the leader(s) of the initiative like a principal or counselor leave before they’ve gained footing. For schools dealing with intense obstacles like lack of funding or violence among students, finding a way to focus on a long-term strategy amidst short term crises takes incredible tenacity. The Schools of Character program doesn’t currently offer many resources to help in this way, and schools tend to drop off when they realize this is not a quick fix.

Already good schools make up a large portion of those reaching School of Character status, and the schools that most need character development don’t always have the opportunity to prioritize it. The work to get there is worth it. It just needs to be accessible to everyone.

‘Character in the Classroom Is Not Extra’

Missouri Principal Bill Senti succinctly captured the importance of character development on Character.org’s Twitter page: “Being intentional in developing positive culture, climate, and character in the classroom is not an option. It’s not extra. It is the foundation upon which everything else is built. A child’s education is too important to build on soft ground.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment; however, it isn’t only a child’s education. It’s about that child’s decisions for the rest of their life. It’s about every adult’s choices and the examples they set. Jada, a student from Harlem, NY, shared her favorite aspects of St. Hope Leadership Academy with the School of Character evaluator visiting the school: “Our teachers and staff members never give up on us and continually motivate us. Teachers provide HARLEM Chats and teach us our values in our classes and advisory.” She continued, “As a result, I am becoming a better person. We begin each morning by saying our pledge, and it reminds me of our school’s values and why we do what we do.”

Being intentional in developing positive culture, climate, and character in the classroom is not an option. It’s not extra. It is the foundation upon which everything else is built.

Schools of Character, in pockets across the country, are challenging themselves to create real change in the lives of their students so that entire communities can improve and break down the growing isolation people feel. It doesn’t stop in the U.S. however. Character.org is piloting international efforts naming four Mexico Schools of Character in the last couple years and working with some educators in China on their character initiatives. In 2018, Megga Nalutaaya, a former Character.org fellow, returned to her home in Uganda and created a youth leadership training organization called SoarAway. She paired Ugandan service with the 11 Principles, and with Sheril’s help, trained dozens of Ugandan youth in character and leadership.

Even with so much success in these 500+ schools, and all the ones beginning their journey, too many communities still need intentional character development strategies. But those who’ve seen the success up close are optimistic. In their recent school safety report, the Department of Education cited character development as their number one strategy for preventing school violence. When asked about the end goal for character development, Character.org President and CEO Doug Karr dreams big. He wants Character.org and their partners “to engage and resource people worldwide so that they will create communities of character everywhere.” If these efforts continue to prove successful and sustainable, we have not only found one path to education reform, but beyond, impacting a wide range of social issues.

Heather Cazad

Heather is Director of Communications and Conference Planner at Character.org, an education nonprofit in DC. She has served as guest editor for the Journal of Character Education, editor for the Schools of Character Magazine, and manuscript screener in fiction and nonfiction for Autumn House Press. She writes about art, music, and film with regard to how they shape culture. She likes animals and comics and believes people have the capacity to accomplish amazing things.

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