Becky Sipos, President & CEOCharacter Education—Comprehensive, Intentional and Proactive
By Becky Sipos

At Liberty Corner Elementary School (NJ), students know the focus is not only on academics, but also on how they are going to leave the school as a person. That focus apparently is working. Comments from the middle school say that “the Liberty Corner School kids are the most well-rounded, best kids in the building.” Eric Rauschenberger, Liberty Corner guidance counselor, said, “The greatest compliment we get year after year is about the kind of kids we are sending. It makes us feel validated that what we’re doing is sticking.” Kindergarten teacher, Trisha Bubnowski, said, “We’ve gelled as a school community so that when you go out in public and see Liberty Corner School kids, you hear people say character education is what sets us apart.”

“The school uses a comprehensive, intentional, and proactive approach to character development.”

How does Liberty Corner achieve these results? A big part of their success is due to principle 3 (of Character.org’s 11 Principles of Effective Character Education): “The school uses a comprehensive, intentional, and proactive approach to character development.” They really work to include character development in everything they do.

They recognize that effective character education should not be considered as a means to an end (i.e, a way to manage student behavior in the service of academic achievement), but should be considered as an end in itself (i.e. the promotion of ethical and engaged citizens). They have intentionally focused on character education since their programs began in 1999.

It’s in their school plan. The character education committee meets monthly even in the summer (for what they call “Staff College”), and they review the past year’s program to see what has worked and what they’ll change.

It’s embedded throughout the curriculum. Instruction is based on research and best practices and the fact that 80% of students say they have a voice in the instructional day is important. Teachers are provided with grade specific One Book Book Club titles and lesson plans. Studying historical figures and events prompts discussions about ethical dilemmas and controversial issues (Revolutionary & Civil Wars, Underground Railroad, Emancipation, Native Americans). They have strict rules on plagiarism – kids in primary grades do reports IN school to ensure that it is not parents who are doing the reports.

It’s embedded into what is sometimes call “the hidden curriculum”–the rules, the regulations, and the routines of school. For example, the school has an innovative way of giving kids a voice in their classroom. Their Classroom Economy System ensures that Classroom Rules are tied to Core Values.

  • Students create a list of classroom jobs that they feel would help the functionality of the classroom.
  • Students then rank jobs according to the job’s responsibilities and frequency – from this, job salaries are determined.
  • Students then complete a job application upon which they choose three classroom jobs – and list the character traits that they possess that would make them a likely candidate for the job.
  • Students then must interview for their desired jobs (with the teacher during recess).

Character education is embedded in extra-curricular activities as well—on buses, in sports, and even in the cafeteria where they have Golden Tray Awards. The staff has gone above and beyond to create opportunities for learners to build relationships and be involved in the life of their school by serving through organizations like Kids for Characters, Student Council, and the Lion’s Den. During this spring’s site visit evaluation for Schools of Character, students in these organizations were able to articulate what they are learning both academically and in terms of character development.

Parent, Lisa LaTourette, said, “I think overall everything they do for character education is instilled daily. It’s just what they do.” I often use a quote attributed to our philanthropic founder, Sandy McDonnell: “Character Education is not one more thing on the plate; it is the plate.” To fit that description, the school needs to ensure an intentional focus on character in the school’s “hidden curriculum,” in the academic curriculum, and in all the extra-curricular programs and activities. Liberty Corner Elementary School does all of that very well.

For a wealth of resources on principle three, see chapter III of Character.org’s Eleven Principles Sourcebook. For other tips on getting started on your character education journey and ensuring a successful new school year, see our blog “Starting your Character Education Journey.”

We wish you a happy return to school with enthusiastic students, high expectations, and a genuine commitment to character development to complement your academic focus.