A long application process — demonstrating 11 principles of effective character education on a 25-page questionnaire — resulted not only in national recognition for a metro-east school, but forced an “eye-opening” experience about how the school worked for students and how it worked for the community.
“It’s hard to explain to people who have never gone through the process, it’s really an eye-opening experience, and when you get to the end result you look at the whole document you’ve created. It’s quite amazing,” said Lori Taylor, principal of Union School in Belleville.
“It just makes you look at how you manage your school ... for example, one thing that schools often do is they reward things extrinsically, part of character education is to get students to do things for the reward of doing the right thing. That’s one thing we had to look at right off the bat. We don’t do any extrinsic anymore,” she said.
Instead, celebrations are whole-group — as in an entire class or the whole school — and no one is rewarded with candy.
Character.org, formerly the Character Education Partnership, is a national organization that recognized 64 schools including Union in Belleville as the 2015 National Schools of Character.
Character.org’s director Sheril Morgan said Union School integrates academics and character education and “parents feel involved” at the school. Morgan said each of the 11 principles is given up to four points; to earn national recognition the school must have at least a three in every category with an overall average of 3.3. She would not disclose Union’s score.
The 11 criteria include fostering self-motivation and engaging families and community members.
Clearly defined “core values” are among the hallmarks of the program. At Union, those are: be kind, be respectful, be honest and be responsible. Even the youngest celebrating the end of school at the Belleville School District 118 picnic on Monday could recite the values, although kindergartner Jabari Jordan-Rumph, 6, mumbled a bit over the tougher word “responsible.”
But by second grade, students are much more verbal about the four values and what they mean, even if expansive definitions still elude them.
Being kind means “being nice, by not being mean,” said Barrett Nieweglowski, 8.
“He does learn a lot from school, and he does bring a lot home,” said his mother, Dana Nieweglowski. She said the school emphasizes the four values, especially at the beginning of the school year, and it’s “always explained” at the orientations.
First-grade teacher Mary Beth Tribout said the process for the award was long and tough but worth it.
“Our boys and girls are amazing with our core values,” she said. Teachers regularly use the core values as part of the disciplinary process, she said.
“What core value were you not following, and what could you be doing?” Tribout said, is a common question when students need guidance.
Ciyah Coleman, 7, said if students follow core values, “you won’t get in trouble.”
Michael Gribler, 8, said the core value of being honest meant telling the truth, all the time, even if a student had done something against the school’s values.
“You still need to because if you tell the truth, you won’t get in as big of trouble as if you lie,” he said.
Tribout said the school went through the Character.org process to see “what do we already do; and what can we do to up our game?” and had comparisons to student behavior from before and after character education, with after showing a behavioral improvement.
“It’s a process,” Taylor said. “We started this process probably three years ago. You have to address different things you do, get your students involved, get your parents. It’s not something you can do in one school year.”
It’s part of a trend in education, says a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professor who is interim chair of the department of curriculum instruction.
“Schools have taken on that role of character building,” said professor Susan Breck.
She is quick to clarify that it’s not parents who are failing to instill those values, but rather that school where students spend much of their waking hours.
“I think (character education) matters, but not because of it being a school. It matters more because we have entrusted public schools with the shaping and molding of children in America,” Breck said. “They spend 5 to 6 hours a day at that location; we trust these schools to have children come out the other end being capable human beings.”
Belleville District 118 Superintendent Matt Klosterman said the district will likely send a couple of representatives to the national conference in October in Atlanta to accept the award.
Klosterman said Westhaven Elementary received state recognition from the same Character.org, and all schools in the district have character programs but not all have taken the steps to apply for recognition.
He said character education programs reinforce what parents do at home.
“I hear from parents all the time — the climate at schools, it’s a good place, a safe place,” he said. “They appreciate the focus and energy on reading, writing and arithmetic but also teaching children to be good citizens. It’s a good thing to do, and we should do it.”
At a glance
Character.org has 11 principles of core values that it looked for in the application. Union Elementary School in Belleville was among those recognized by the organization as a National School of Character. Schools of Character:
▪ promote core ethical and performance values as the foundation of good character
▪ define “character” comprehensively
▪ use a comprehensive, intentional and proactive approach
▪ create a caring community
▪ allow students chances for moral action.
▪ offer a curriculum that respects all learners, develops their character and helps them to succeed
▪ foster students’ self-motivation
▪ have staff that share responsibility for character education and keep the same values
▪ fosters shared leadership
▪ partners with families and community members
▪ regularly assess their culture and climate