Making Student Character Development a Top Priority

Guest post by Carey Dahncke

Christel House Academy is a charter school that educates impoverished students in the urban core of Indianapolis, IN. Our faculty works hard to educate the whole child and help students grow not only academically, but also as people. To support this focus, we developed a program called Character & Habits of Work, or CHoW, which is an ongoing and deliberate effort to foster and examine these important traits in students. 

The CHoW program grew out of our concern that students’ grades often did not reflect their learning, but rather their ability to conform to school and teacher expectations. We realized that we needed a way to communicate to students and parents about character and habits of work separately from mastery of performance standards.

What is CHoW?  

CHoW has become the cornerstone of what we do at Christel House Academy. Its overall philosophy is woven into all aspects of the curriculum along with the following student-learning targets:

  1. I take responsibility for my work, learning, and actions. This means I also own what I do and say, both when I do well and when I make mistakes.
  2. I am respectful to adults and my peers. This means my words, actions, and tone of voice are polite, appropriate for school, and represent CHA well.
  3. I am independent. This means I can think, act, and work on my own when appropriate.
  4. I have integrity. This means I am honest and do what is right even when it is hard.
  5. I am collaborative. This means I actively listen to others, contribute to ideas and conversations, and work with others to solve problems and create good work.
  6. I set goals, take action to meet them, and reflect on my progress.
  7. I have grit. This means I think through problems, don’t give up when things are hard, and make good things happen for myself and others.

Students know that they will be graded on both academic standards and CHoW standards in each class. For example, a student may frequently be late and need extra time to complete an assignment but, in the end, submits excellent work that shows mastery of the content and skills. The teacher can report positively on the attainment of the academic standard but critically about the student’s ability to manage time and meet deadlines.

ExhibitionTeachers use CHoW to intentionally and explicitly teach soft skills and help students create and accept accountability for their learning. Our staff has created a collection of lesson plans that teachers use with students to develop and practice the CHoW skills in academic classes and during a daily advisory period. Teachers also track student progress of the learning targets and give regular feedback to them during an individual goal-setting and reflection session each quarter.

How do we know if we are making an impact? 

If you look at our population, statistically they should be terribly underperforming. We are an impoverished population with over 95 percent of students on free or reduced-price lunch. About one-third of our students don’t speak English as a first language. And we have a significant percentage of students dealing with issues of social upheaval, including incarcerated parents, homelessness, food insecurity, and immigration status problems.

Despite these challenges, our percentage of graduates earning honors diplomas and entering college far exceeds the national averages for poor children. Christel House Academy has been named in the U.S. News and World Report 2016 National Rankings of best high schools at the bronze level. While I cannot say that CHoW is singlehandedly the reason, I can say that our focus on helping students grow up with the ability to demonstrate strong positive character traits and excellent habits of work is an important element of that success.

CHoW provides a clearer picture of students’ strengths and areas for improvement. It instills a growth mindset and acts as a lens to help students transform and develop the soft skills needed for success. As a result, we are developing students who can set realistic and achievable goals, engage in meaningful conversations about their character, and assess their habits of work. We are developing the kind of young adults who we are all proud to have living in our community and who will become good employees and good citizens.

How intentional are you about building positive habits of work in your school? In this era of hyper academic accountability, how do you communicate that a person’s character is equally important?  

Carey Dahncke is Head of Schools for the Christel House Academy network of school in Indianapolis, IN and a 2013 MetLife Foundation-NASSP Breakthrough Schools principal. Follow him on Twitter @CareyDahncke. 

Photo credit: The MindTrust, Indianapolis

7 Comments

  • Michael Thomas says:

    Love the learning targets, especially the last one on grit. How did your school develop the targets? Can you recommend any readings that helped to inspire your team’s commitment to character?

    Sounds like Christel House is a superb school. Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks, Michael, we developed these targets organically as a staff. They have come together over time though considerable discussions about, “what really matters and what will really make a difference?” I am very lucky to have a thoughtful team of educators who are willing to think creatively and critically about the needs of our students.
      Ron Berger’s “An Ethic of Excellence” is a great book to help start the conversation around what it is we are striving to attain. Far too often, a school’s approaches to discipline centers on what is easiest to implement. Committing to deeply transforming culture is really hard work.
      If you work with impoverished students, Eric Jensen’s “Teaching with Poverty in Mind” is a fantastic resource. It has deeply influenced our thinking as a school.
      “Partners in Learning” by Carol Lieber is a good one too.

  • Nick LeRoy says:

    Carey, you guys have done some great things. Keep up the good work

  • Kevin Davis says:

    Thanks for this reminder. Reactive discipline never gets us to where we want to be.

  • Kevin Grawer says:

    Great stuff Carey. I really want to get to Indy and see your students and staff in action. Is there a better time of year to come?

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