Guest post by Kendrick Myers
For years, character education has played a large role in schools. In 39 states, character education is mandated or encouraged. It is mentioned in the legislation of every state except for one, and in Alabama it has been a mandated part of the curriculum since 1995. However, character education is more than a mandate or legislative injunction. According to the National Forum on Character Education, it helps solve behavioral problems and improve academic achievement.
My Experience with Character Education
In 2012, I began my stint as an administrator at Opelika High School in Opelika, AL, and became part of a citywide character education initiative, One Book One City. This initiative involved schools, churches, and community centers embracing the concept of being Uncommon, the title of the book written by former football coach and Super Bowl winner Tony Dungy. The book became part of our book study for that school year. The city gave away 100 copies at one of our first home football games. We even had Uncommon shirts.
For the next year, we reiterated monthly character traits throughout the city and went over concepts of the book such as honesty, integrity, respect, and friendship. Ultimately, as the book states, small actions of responsibility grew in our staff, students, and community members. Everyone was bolstering their effort to build our program and more effectively implement character education. This excitement carried into faculty meetings and our district and became the driving force for what we now call Academic Opportunity (or AO) at the high school.
The Impact on Opelika High
Academic Opportunity is a 30-minute class that focuses on character education and academic growth. Each teacher, principal, counselor, and administrator is responsible for the same group of 12–15 students throughout their high school careers, adding freshmen as seniors transition out. The curriculum focuses around building character and responsibility. This year, almost like 2012, we’ve initiated a schoolwide book study using Ron Clark’s The Essential 55.
Our program, now in its second year, has gained admiration from our community and other schools. Small culture changes such as practicing the alma mater has brought our students together, arm in arm at football games and pep rallies, singing a song they once did not know. We have noticed a 16 percent decrease in failures and a 27.7 percent decrease in discipline referrals. Our teachers and students have a closer bond to one another, and I personally have developed a relationship with my 12 students that I may not have had without Academic Opportunity.
In the End, It’s All About the People
However, as Todd Whitaker would say, “It is never about programs; it is always about people.” It was not the shirts, the books, or even the character words posted throughout the city every month that bolstered our culture and character education program—it was the people and the follow through. Effective, comprehensive character education has a ubiquitous influence. Our school is much like many other schools that take advantage of character building opportunities.
In Hoover, AL, Bumpus Middle School implements strong character education programs. Building on their “Respect the Bumpus Way” model and Bystander Button, the faculty and administration at Bumpus have helped curtail bullying and encourage responsibility. In St. Louis, MO, Bayless Elementary School created the Practical Parenting Partnership and embedded Character.org’s 11 Principles of Effective Character Education. As a result, they have more parent involvement and “over 94 percent of Bayless students read at or above grade level.”
So, what’s the point? What do all these places have in common? These places have built comprehensive programs that have not just included the students, but the community. As educators it is our job to teach the whole child, and that includes tapping into resources outside of the school walls. It means building relationships and partnerships with stakeholders, modeling your expectations, evaluating your needs, and making every decision based on your goal as a learning community. More importantly, remember that character is not just about what we do, but how we do it.
What do you or what will you do to build character in your school community? How have you been or how do you plan to be instrumental in this process? Please share in the comments below.
Kendrick Myers is the assistant principal of Opelika High School in Opelika, AL, which serves 1,243 students in grades 9–12. He is the 2016 Alabama Assistant Principal of the Year and an avid #ALedchat participant on Twitter. Follow him @MyersMr.