Schwartz & Soifer: Reading, Writing and Respect — Today, We Celebrate 84 National Schools of Character


What would you say about schools that, in addition to teaching students how to read, write and multiply, inspire them to treat all people with respect? Schools where teachers and staff members model the power of a smile, a kind word or a listening ear? Wouldn’t you want your child to attend a school where students are taught to be honest and trustworthy, to contribute their time and talents to the common good and, when necessary, to show the courage to stand up for what is right?

We want to bust open the secret that these schools exist. Today, 84 elementary and secondary schools across the United States are being recognized as a National School of Character. Each has established a culture that embodies the spirit and wisdom of Martin Luther King’s belief that “intelligence plus character — that is the goal of a true education.” We are also certifying seven school districts nationwide as National Districts of Character.

King’s insight underscores a powerful truth that too often gets lost in today’s debates about K-12 education. Throughout our nation’s history, schools have served as dynamic seedbeds where students learn about and practice a constellation of character strengths, ranging from respect and responsibility to compassion and curiosity.

This is the first time in 20 years that the schools and districts receiving National Schools of Character recognition will need to celebrate their accomplishment virtually. That’s why it’s even more important for us, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, to recognize and lift up the teachers and staff at these 84 schools and seven districts. Their educators strive every day, even while physically separated, to model the strengths of character they want their students to understand and live by.

There is a palpable ethic of caring that defines a National School of Character. At Complete High School in Maize, Kansas, for example, staff members use the word “family” to describe the culture of their school. The “Maize Way” is so embedded within the curriculum that it is seen as the program around which everything else revolves. The school has helped more than 500 at-risk students not just graduate but become good people. And while the average tenure of an alternative school teacher in the United States is three years, due to burnout, Complete averages 11 years for its certified staff members. A parent told a member of our evaluation team that “the teachers and staff built up my son’s self-worth in a way that a parent cannot.”

At Arthur L. Johnson High School in Clark, New Jersey, the word that consistently popped up in site visit interviews was “family.” Special needs students play alongside their general education peers on unified sports teams — an intentional effort by administrators, staff, students and the school’s character committee to build a more inclusive community.

At the heart of each National School of Character is a set of shared values that express and articulate what the school stands for. At Woodridge Elementary in San Antonio, Texas, the school staff strives every day to model the “Be the WE” creed that includes the character strengths of respect, kindness, acceptance and service. Teachers at Woodridge describe their creed as the “beating heart” of the school.

During our site visits, we always ask parents and students, as well as the school staff, to tell us about their core values. These conversations are often the best indicators for assessing whether the shared values of a school are actually touchstones that guide and shape students’ thinking, feelings and actions. We’re not looking for a simple recitation of specific character strengths (e.g., honesty, caring); rather, we’re trying to gauge how those values motivate students to do the right thing, especially when no one is looking.

At Hartselle Intermediate School in Hartselle, Alabama, hard work, integrity and success are built on the shared values of positive attitude, respect, responsibility, kindness, self-control, perseverance and service. All staff share leadership in the character effort and embrace their responsibility as role models. The lead custodian does more than clean the school; he knows every teacher’s schedule and specific details of student work. While touring the art room with our site visitor, he remarked, “This is what WE are working on right now.” The pride showed in the students and staff extends well beyond his work ethic. Perhaps it was put best by a student: “You learn the fundamentals in life here; how to care for each other and the Golden Rule.”

Each of our National Schools of Character provides opportunities for students to internalize the timeless principles that form a person’s moral compass, his or her true north. The truth is that all educators — along with parents and families, coaches and mentors, houses of worship and community leaders — share responsibility for ensuring that every young person graduating from high school is ready to enter college or the workforce with the requisite character strengths. Indeed, there is growing recognition among employers that it’s best to “hire for character … train for skill.”

At Imagine School Kissimmee Charter Academy in Kissimmee, Florida, students in grades K-8 are empowered to be leaders and encouraged to be catalysts of change. Preparing students for life beyond the classroom is part of the “character mission” at Imagine. Students say leadership and ownership are the intrinsic motivation they need to keep focused and successful in academics and in R.I.S.E. — the school’s character touchstone that reflects their shared values of Respect, Integrity, Safety and Excellence.

The 84 Schools of Character, as well as the seven school districts that have earned their certification as Districts of Character, have each put in place a comprehensive approach that helps their students understand, care about and consistently practice the core values that will enable them to flourish in school, in relationships, in the workplace and as citizens.

Arthur Schwartz is president of Character.org. Lori Soifer directs the National Schools of Character program. 

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