Inspiring Students to Do Their Best
Story posted June 25, 2010. Results updated July 22, 2014
• The district's graduation rate consistently outpaces the state's: 88.7% compared to 77.6% in 2011, 92.2% to 83.7% in 2012 and 90.6% to 85.7% in 2013
• In 2013, students in the district, in all grades tested, outpaced the state in math and ELA, with ELA students in grades 3 through 8 exceeding an average of 95% proficiency
"I’m just a hometown gal, born and bred in Arnold, Missouri.” The effervescent superintendent of schools for the Fox C-6 district, Dr. Dianne Brown, who has served in this district for her entire career in education, cannot hide her love of her hometown. She continues, “Arnold is really a special place. We don’t just have a district of character here; we have a whole community of character. We even have a parade for character.”
Brown, known as a passionate crusader for character, initiated a character program in 1999, the first year she served as an elementary school principal. But Brown’s passion for character education has a deeper, personal connection that dates back to her first year of teaching. Tim, one of her students, a transfer from the inner city, was shot as he alighted from the school bus. Tim’s brother, unaware that the gun he was pointing in jest was loaded, had killed him. “They never taught me how to handle this at college,” thought the young teacher as she prepared to
help her students deal with the trauma. What awaited her, however, was yet another lesson. Tim’s classmates experienced shock, grief, fear—all the expected emotions—but an overriding emotion that had not been anticipated was guilt. Students tearfully shared how they had made fun of Tim’s lazy eye, and they realized that they could never take back their cruel words. Tim had come to his new school in search of a better life, and he was shunned because he was different.
The incident made an indelible impression on Brown, who experienced regret that such cruelty had occurred under her watch, and she made a fierce determination that it would not happen again. As a teacher, she shared Tim’s story at the beginning of each school year, to stress the importance of kindness, acceptance, and gun safety. As a principal, she welcomed each grade level of students and again shared Tim’s story, this time as a prologue for presenting her vision of an ideal, caring school. Brown says, “I realized as a principal how many kids I could touch with character education. Then, once I became assistant superintendent, I realized the impact character education could have on an entire district … so the personal journey that started as a tragedy in 1990 has turned into a wonderful character initiative for an entire community.”
Creating a Wonderful Character Initiative
Creating that “wonderful character initiative” was not magical; it required shared leadership, effective professional development, and thoughtful implementation. With 19 buildings and close to 12,000 students, Dr. Brown saw the necessity of listening to many voices when, as assistant superintendent in 2001, she sought to establish a district-wide character education program. The first step was forming a District Character Education Team, which included staff, parents, and community members. At an educational summit in the same year, 150 community members decided on 12 values deemed necessary to foster personal growth, good citizenship, and academic success. The character program of Fox C-6 School District was off to a running start.
The past eight years have seen a blossoming of the initiative. Kristen Pelster, principal of Ridgewood Middle School (a 2006 NSOC) and a leader on the District Character Education Team, says that all schools have their own character committees which help them to address individual school concerns, but there is a great deal of sharing. “The walls have come down between buildings,” says Pelster. Fox Middle School principal Laura Gabler agrees that each school is “no longer an island.”
The district makes certain each school has the time, the resources, and the training to succeed in its character mission. Twenty-five administrators have graduated from Dr. Marvin Berkowitz’s Leadership Academy for Character Education, which has shaped capable leaders with the facility to foster change. All 11 elementary schools have adapted the Caring School Community (CSC) model, with training given by Characterplus in nearby St. Louis, and the close relationship with Characterplus has provided many professional opportunities for the staff. In addition to focusing on the monthly character traits, each building employs strategies that help students to understand, appreciate, and practice them. Class meetings and guidance activities in the elementary grades, social skill/character classes and student-led character councils in the middle schools, and school clubs and service-learning activities in the high schools are among the diverse strategies that have advanced character-building in the district.
Seeing How Kids Make the School
“What I find special about our school are the kids. You can build a school anywhere and put the most expensive stuff in it, and it doesn’t make it a nice school. Things can be replaced, but I think it is the kids that make the school,” observes Nicole, a ninth grader at Fox High School. Nicole is not alone in describing the special caring found in fellow students; the same sentiment resonates in interviews at every level in the Fox C-6 district. Shane, a Fox Middle School eighth grader, says, “The kids at our school are like brothers and sisters. We talk to everyone and accept people for who they are, even if they are different than us.” And Dylon, a fourth grader at Fox Elementary, eagerly reels off a list of adjectives to describe his classmates: “Nice, friendly, respectful, honest, trustworthy, helpful, caring, fun, and cooperative.”
A visit to some of the district’s schools reveals the student voice is indeed important. At class meetings in all of the elementary schools, students get their first taste of autonomy, and, as Seckman High School sophomore Jessica points out, “they have a say in how their school works” at every level. In the middle school, Character Councils train students to be leaders, who in turn present weekly character and teambuilding lessons to their peers. Through a host of clubs, organizations, and special drug awareness and conflict resolution programs, high school students have the chance to take on mature responsibilities. Service has also provided the students with the possibility of assuming the lead in addressing social, economic, or ecological issues. For example, Fox Middle teacher Eva Rudolph tells how a student’s “go green” recycling initiative in the cafeteria led to the district’s decision to replace all Styrofoam trays with washable plastic ones.
The official forum for the student voice is the annual Student Summit, at which representatives from each school gather to discuss issues and make plans. In essence, these students become the leaders in their individual buildings in implementing these initiatives. Some of the Summit topics that have merited district-wide focus are cyber safety, bullying and harassment, health and wellness, and school improvement.
Caring Teachers = High-Performing Students
Principal Liz Anderson, who first taught at Hamrick Elementary before returning to serve as principal, has seen “a great change in teacher attitude” since the introduction of character education. Gone are those words Kids can’t learn because…, and in their stead are Let’s find a way to make it happen for all children. The district’s data show a strong correlation between student performance and character education: Scores in the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) have improved over the period from 2002 to 2008, and Fox C-6 has been honored as a Distinction of Performance district in each of those years as well as in 2009.
Students readily attest to the role that teachers play in motivating students. Rachel, a freshman at Seckman High School, says, “The entire faculty really cares about the students. We have a chance to be successful because the school gives us so many opportunities.” Sidney, an eighth grader at Fox Middle School, notes, “The teachers try to exemplify character in the school and be positive role models in each and every student’s life.” Courtney, an eighth grader at Ridgewood Middle School, gives valuable insight into the sense of family experienced in the district: “The teachers aren’t just teachers, they are friends; your friends aren’t just friends, they are family. It is where you want to do your best because you know you can.”
Strengthening the Family Bond
The Arnold community strengthens the bond that makes the district a family. In fact, the district’s Web site states: Our greatest resource is the people in the communities that Fox C-6 School District serves. Displaying that community support is the annual character education parade, in which colorful floats and marchers, representing all schools, along with the business and faith communities, celebrate a character theme. Arnold is a city that is justly proud of its school district and shows its support in many ways: The Fox C-6 Foundation funds teacher-proposed initiatives, the Community of Character Banner Project showcases the support of character by 150 businesses, and the Jim Chellew Service Awards Banquet honors outstanding service to the Fox School District.
As eighth grader Heather from Ridgewood Middle School observes, “There is this bond between everyone here. It’s unbelievable.” Parents, welcomed to the schools as volunteers, tutors, speakers, and service helpers, feel that they are an integral part of their child’s school life. Parent Darrell Missey contrasts how different Fox is from his own experience, in which “only the good students were encouraged to excel while the marginal students were expected only to stay out of trouble.” Missey adds, “I sense that all of the students are encouraged to do their best and to be a meaningful part of a larger community.”
A school’s failure to welcome and support a new student prompted Brown to embark on a mission to bring character to her district. Interviews with parents and students show the results of that mission. Parent Bob Caldwell, whose children had attended schools in three districts, remarks how the Fox teachers had a “unique ability” to give each of his four children “the security and self-respect” needed during the transition. Perhaps the greatest experience that Joy and I had was at the end of each school day, when our children came home excited about their new school, their teachers, administrators, and friends.” Sydney, an eighth grader at Fox Middle School, gives the student viewpoint: “My school helped me realize how welcoming and heartwarming people can be when I moved here from Alabama. It taught me how to achieve great goals and work through hardships. I have never met better people.”
The next time Brown relates Tim’s story, she might want to add a corollary— Sydney’s story. After all, it is clear proof of the power of character education.
Caring School Community. Oakland, CA: Developmental Studies Center. Web site: www.devstu.org/csc.
CHARACTERplus. St. Louis, MO: Cooperating School Districts. Web site: www.characterplus.org.
Sanford N. McDonnell Leadership Academy in Character Education. CHARACTERplus. St. Louis, MO: Cooperating School Districts. Web site: www.characterplus.org.
Copyright © 2009 Character Education Partnership. Reposted with permission.
Click here to access the original article as contained in the 2009 National Schools of Character Award Winning Practices book (pages 3-5).
Interested in learning more about character education? Join the Character Education Partnership for the 17th National Forum on Character Education, October 28-30 in San Francisco. Learn more at http://www.character.org/2010forum.