In the years since Ellis Elementary School started teaching kids moral lessons along with subtraction and vocabulary words, the building’s atmosphere has changed.
“You basically had been having a bad day at home when you’re getting ready or something, and then when you walk into the school, it’s like a poof, like a welcoming and happy kind of shine,” said Kaleb Dowd, a third-grade student.
The Belleville school was recognized twice this year for teaching ethical values — once at the state level, as well as with a national award from the organization Character.org.
The students say they look out for each other at Ellis.
When they see students sitting alone, Abby Bagby, another third-grader, said they’ll ask them to play instead. They greet their classmates at the door in the morning, maybe cheering someone up if they’ve had a bad morning, according to third-grader Lauren Chavis.
“We try and make you feel very welcome,” Lauren said. “...If you’re having a very bad day, once you get to school, you might feel not as happy as you want to but just a little bit more happy.”
Parent Tessa Keys said the kids bring what they learn home, too. She has two children at Ellis in kindergarten and second grade.
“Even last night, my son was doing something difficult, my kindergartener, and I was like, ‘Oh, I can do that for you,’” she said in an interview Wednesday. “He goes, ‘No, I’m going to use perseverance,’ you know, using those big words and pulling them into his everyday. So it’s great.”
Parents also help encourage the students through a hallway bulletin board that’s filled with notes like these:
▪ “We are so proud of the sweet, intelligent and loving boy you are growing into. Love you!”
▪ “Your spirit and smile light up the world. Keep sharing your joy all around you. I am so proud of you!”
▪ “I am proud of you for treating your little brother like your best friend.”
The school’s lessons on character involve helping the community, too.
They brought Christmas cards to a nursing home in December and helped clean up a baseball field in March.
“My school has taught me doing things for the community helps a lot,” Abby said. “Like the nursing home (trip) made the people who weren’t as fortunate as us feel happy.”
Ellis Elementary, which is in Harmony-Emge District 175, was the only school in Illinois to earn the national award from Character.org this year.
Four schools in nearby Belleville District 118 received that national recognition in the past, including Union School, Jefferson School, Henry Raab School and Abraham Lincoln School.