When kids are sent off to school, they’re expected to learn reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies and a host of other subjects by the time they graduate from high school. In addition, one Washington, D.C.-based organization is trying to develop future leaders by helping schools adopt another component to their curricula–character.
Character.org, formerly the Character Education Project, is a nonprofit organization devoted to character education, which it defines as “supporting the social, emotional and ethical development of students.” It works with educators, school districts, students and others to provide the resources necessary for character education.
Most notably, Character.org has developed the Schools of Character designation, which highlights schools that have met a rigorous 11-point framework that includes an immersive approach to building good character. Schools of Character, on both the state and national levels, must define the concept of “character” comprehensively as thinking, feeling, and doing, while promoting core ethical and performance values. The school must foster students’ self-motivation and take action to create a caring community that provides opportunities for moral action and leadership. Character.org also designates Districts of Character to qualifying school districts.
And while that all sounds very fluffy and politically correct, it’s an idea that is gaining traction in schools around the country, says Rebecca Sipos, the organization’s president and CEO. But, proving worthiness for the designation isn’t something to be taken lightly. Schools need to document what they’re doing in each of the 11 areas and measure growth in specific areas. Two evaluators conduct on-site visits to verify application assertions.
“Anybody can write a beautiful application and put together some evidence. But when you send two trained evaluators to school to talk to parents, students, to observe in classrooms, does the reality match the portfolio? So it’s a very difficult process,” she says.
One of the key components is providing opportunities for students to get involved in both leadership and moral action. Schools may be more careful about distributing leadership opportunities among the student body instead of assigning them to the same students. One school disbanded its student council in favor of creating opportunities for more students.
Sipos says that typical findings include higher teacher retention rates as bullying and achievement gaps decline. That’s what happened New Jersey’s Old Bridge Township public schools. Kathleen Hoeker was principal of the town’s Alan B. Shepard School Elementary School, which received its state school designation in 2010. Since then, the district took the 11 principles district-wide and in 2013-2014, the district had five national schools and eight state school designations.
More important is the impact, says Hoeker, who is now the district’s assistant superintendent. SAT scores and AP class enrollment are at all-time highs. More than 80% of students in the highly diverse community are going to colleges and universities. And harassment, bullying, and intimidation investigations have been cut in half. Community support and connection in the 9,000-student district has increased. A recent fundraiser for a student with cancer raised $55,000 in one night.
“I went from dealing with discipline problems in the elementary school to having kids come to me saying, ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s what I did,’” she says. “The kids know that my goal isn’t to punish them. Our goal is to find solutions together.”
Since 1998, Character.org has named more than 250 Schools of Character. Previously, it limited national designations to 10 per year. However, in 2008, the organization decided lift the limit, allowing more schools to become Schools of Character each year. In 2014, 44 schools and districts received national School of Character designations. Sipos says there was a 22% increase in applications for 2015.
“I see the climate and the pushback and the protest to the singular focus on test scores. So, I hear a hunger in the population for a change, people are dissatisfied with the citizenship of students,” she says.