The grueling application process to become an Illinois School of Character reinforced what staff at Abraham Lincoln Elementary already knew: Their school is full of good character.
“I felt like it was, ‘Oh yeah, we do this,’” said third-grade teacher Marcy Knaus, one of those who helped apply for the designation.
Madonna Murphy, an education professor at the University of St. Francis in Joilet, is one of the state coordinators who reviews the applications.
“They’ve been doing this for a long time, almost since 2002, and they keep learning from the program,” she said of staff at Abraham Lincoln Elementary.
One thing that stood out to her was the school’s “Be A Star” program that helps students learn conflict resolution, which Murphy says is a valuable life skill.
The school is the eighth of District 118’s schools to be named an Illinois School of Character; only two schools were honored in the state this year. Last year, Union Elementary School in Belleville went on to achieve the National School of Character honor by Character.org.
One of the biggest problems in the application was keeping under the maximum words allowed for each section, according to Abraham Lincoln teachers and administrators who worked on it.
“We would be 1,000 words over,” said administrative intern Megan Vitale about some of the 11 principles of character education on the application.
Character education was in place long before the application started, they said.
“It was more, ‘What do we do that shows this, what can we do more like a collaborative effort’ — building upon processes (started) before the application,” Vitale said.
Principal Ed Langen said the school has enforced character education and core values for some time, including with its buddies program where younger classes are paired with an older grade. The school’s core values are kindness, honesty, problem solving, respect, responsibility and making everyone count.
As a teacher it was amazing to see how much parents point out (core values) ... it’s really going home, too.
Sue Loose, teacher at Abraham Lincoln School in Belleville
A motivation at the school is “what are we doing to get more kids to autonomy, belonging and competence,” Langen said. “Buddies moves right to ‘belonging.’”
Character education, in addition to Whole Brain Learning, which uses direct instruction and immediate feedback, is a part of everyday education at the school.
On Thursday morning, Knaus’ third-grade class was discussing a book about Martin Luther King, Jr. The class paired up and sat on rugs near Knaus, and after getting their attention (“class, class” answered with “yes, yes”) she told them to high-five their neighbor, and then say something nice about them.
From there, she called upon one student to pick another who would answer a question.
Respect and listening is standard at Abraham Lincoln, which starts each day with it’s own pledge: “Act like an All-Star/Make a Smart Choice/We are Abe Lincoln/Hear our Voice!”
Teachers this year formalized the classroom buddies, pairing older students with younger ones by classrooms. They say it helps the younger students who can model behavior after the older ones, and the older students have someone to watch out for.
“Kids who struggle with their peers, it’s really amazing, they open up with the younger ones,” Knaus said.
Disciplinary events have dropped in the last two years even as the student population has increased. In 2012, the school reported 135 days of in-school suspension and 62 out-of-school suspensions. By 2014, those numbers were 74 days for in-school and 24 for out of school. Between those years, the number of students increased from 489 to 501; the school expects to continue getting more students as families fill in and grow in new subdivisions Sullivan Farms and Willow Walk.
Disciplinary events have dropped in the last two years even as the student population has increased.
The teachers said there are fewer incidents at recess and within the classroom, and the students are working things out on their own more. Although the school has a “Core Value Reflection” worksheet to help students understand where they went wrong, the teachers don’t often use it, they say.
“A lot of the times, it’s more of a discussion,” third-grade teacher Nicole Andrade said.
“They’re learning character in the same way that they’re learning math,” Knaus said. “We don’t put an X on it and say, ‘You did this wrong’; we talk it out.”
Teachers say parents also understand the school’s vision, something they haven’t always seen before.
“We had so many parents that would ask, ‘What is this bucket-filling thing?’” said teacher Sue Loose of a previous disciplinary method. “As a teacher, it was amazing to see how much parents point out (core values) ... it’s really going home, too.”
Every school in the district that has applied has been named at least a State School of Character, said Superintendent Matt Klosterman. Union Elementary was named as a National School of Character last year; Jefferson was the first state and national school of character for the district several years ago.
Schools that have not applied yet are Douglas, Roosevelt and Washington elementary schools.
Character education has “been a major emphasis,” Klosterman said. “We don’t force anyone to apply ... It really has to be when a building is ready.”
“We are probably going to look into that next year,” said Douglas Principal Teresa Blomenkamp.
“We do model behavior, we are ‘on’ at all times,” she said. “(The application) is probably overdue here in regards to doing the paperwork.”