What a weekend! Over 650 educators from all over the world united in our nation’s capitol to inspire greatness and pave the path for the future of character education. Attendees enjoyed, two full days of thought-provoking breakouts and inspiring keynotes from speakers like Nicholas Kristof, New York Times Columnist and two-time Pulitzer winner, and Mary Gordon, founder and president of Roots of Empathy.

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“This forum was truly inspiring. We were privileged to learn from true leaders in the field of Character Education. We gathered so many ideas and we are planning to share them with the rest of our faculty. We all came back rejuvenated and eager to help our students further develop in character.”
– Lisa Leonard, Saint Joseph Catholic School Counselor and Character Committee Chair

Character Matters

David Brooks, NY Times columnist and 2013 Forum keynote speaker, wrote in a recent column that “Nearly every parent on earth operates on the assumption that character matters a lot to the life outcomes of their children. Nearly every government antipoverty program operates on the assumption that it doesn’t.” As he went on to stress the importance of character and noted the social research that shows its importance, I was cheering him on. I was still with him as he described research that shows that proper experiences can improve performance values such as resilience and self-control.

But then he added, “The superficial ‘character education’ programs implanted into some schools of late haven’t done much either” and I was dismayed. Statements like this add to impressions that character education doesn’t work, but we have evidence that it does. [Link to Marvin’s What Works in Character Education?] Of course, there are superficial attempts out there, but what schools do when they implement CEP’s framework, the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education, is not superficial. It is complex and challenging, and it does make a difference.

Take the example of Smith Street School, a nationally recognized Blue Ribbon School located in Uniondale, New York, and a 2014 National School of Character. IMG_0914Despite numerous challenges (a high poverty rate with 67% of Smith Street students eligible for free or reduced lunch), Smith Street School (SSS) is flourishing. The school consistently outperforms the district and state on test scores. In 2013, passing rates were 13% higher than the district and 9% higher than state averages.

SSS’s character journey began in 2005 and continuously evolved to meet the needs of a diverse community. “We work hard to include parents in our efforts,” says social worker Colleen Parris, “We know that the messages we give here will stick better if they are reinforced at home.”

Parents, teachers and staff developed the touchstone of the “3 R’s: Respect, Responsibility, and Reflection,” and are highly involved in driving initiatives.

Despite significant challenges, Smith Street School is a shining beacon for what can happen on a campus when students, faculty, staff, and the broader community are collectively committed to character education, not only in school, but in life.

Community of Peace schoolAnother great example of effective character education is Community of Peace Academy (CPA), in St. Paul, Minnesota, a K-12 school with a rich history of accomplishments. In 2003 and 2014, they were named a CEP National School of Character; in 2005, a National Peacebuilders Model Site by Peace Partners, Inc.; and in 2007, a National Charter School of the Year by the Center for Educational Reform. The school believes that people will “more likely make moral decisions and choices if they are members of a moral community.”

With a highly diverse student population predominantly comprised of Asian, Hispanic and African-Americans, 86% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch, CPA has developed a school community that best exemplifies the concept of rigor and compassion. CPA’s graduation rate is 86.9% and of the graduates, 93% go on to 2- or 4 year-colleges.

As clearly articulated by students, staff and parents, CPA is a school whose founding in 1995 was based on a desire to link academics and character and is the paragon of what schools can accomplish when they foster the “right and the good.”

See more examples of successful schools who have implemented effective character education.

While we typically showcase the total school climate, the power of character education is most important for the difference it makes for students. While we don’t always know what happens to students when the leave Schools of Character, we have this powerful testimony in our files.

As a 7th grade student, Mandy had been failing every class at her last school, her attendance was terrible, she had been hospitalized with suicidal tendencies and she absolutely hated school. As a new student at a School of Character, she was cared for and connected to programs that would help Mandy turned her life around. Over the next two years, she blossomed into a beautiful and healthy young lady. At the end of her 8th grade year, Mandy learned that she and her mother were moving. In the middle of her first year in high school, she sent this e-mail to her principal:

Hey … It’s Mandy from last year. I just wanted you to know that I really do miss your school and the help you provided me. I hope you know that your school has helped me better myself emotionally and physically. I always do my homework, I have A’s and B’s in every class… I’m running for secretary and I’m going to be on the basketball team. Your character education program has inspired not just me but many other students and i just wanted to let you know the character education your school taught me I have passed it on. Jefferson elementary has asked me to help them develop a character education program for the elementary students to help better them as people. I just wanted to say thank you.

Brooks ends his column with this paragraph: “Character development is an idiosyncratic, mysterious process. But if families, communities and the government can envelop lives with attachments and institutions, then that might reduce the alienation and distrust that retards mobility and ruins dreams.” Yes, we do need to get all stakeholders together, but calling character development “idiosyncratic” and “mysterious” doesn’t help. Character education works best when it is intentional and permeates the entire school culture and curriculum. That’s what we see in our Schools of Character, and we hope to keep growing the program so that more schools can be like Smith Street and Community of Peace Academy and more students like Mandy can turnaround.


What Sandy Showed Me

by Joe Mazzola, Vice President of Character Education Partnership

I have a very heavy heart right now because Sandy McDonnell passed away. You see, he was my hero. Like many others who knew and loved this great man, I now feel a huge emptiness in my life that I know will never be filled. I loved Sandy like a father.

It was a great blessing to have him in my corner for the five years I served as CEP’s executive director. Anyone who knows me would surely tell you that I needed all the help I could get, too. And that was especially true since I had no experience in the nonprofit sector until Sandy and others hired me.

Fortunately, on the work front, Sandy was always there for me. He coached and guided me through all of the really important and tough areas of running any organization—like financial management, strategic planning, human resources and more.

And, Sandy did all of this mentoring quietly and behind-the-scenes. Board members, staff and others never knew all he did for me from the shadows. That’s because Sandy was one of those very rare but genuine servant leaders that many of us read about but never meet. He couldn’t care less about being in the spotlight. Instead, he worked to make everyone else around him shine.

Along my journey with Sandy, there is no doubt he taught me a lot about being a better leader and manager. However, what I really learned from him was how to be a better person. We talked about this topic often which will come as no surprise. Heck, everyone knows that developing good people was Job #1 for Sandy. However, most of what I learned from him on this front was from the example he set. It’s no fluke that he planted roots in the “Show Me” state—he showed me, and thousands of others, what good character looks like in action.

So it was in this other far more important area, the one called life, where Sandy McDonnell taught me the most. Through example, he showed me how to be a good husband and father…how to be humble…how to be nonjudgmental…how to treat others with dignity and respect…how to talk less and listen more…how to be totally honest at all times…how to maintain a sense of humor and positive attitude…how to give back…and, even when dying, how to maintain faith, dignity and strength in the gravest of situations.

Yes, Sandy McDonnell taught lots of us how to be better managers. However, far more importantly, he taught us how to be better human beings. And he taught in the most effective way possible–by the way he lived and the example he set. Sandy understood what was really important in life—good character. More importantly, he showed us what it looks like in action.

There are lots of tributes being written about Sandy right now by many others who knew and loved him. However, I believe all of us can best honor him by pledging to follow his example and doing all that we can to live good and decent lives ourselves. Furthermore, I believe we should also commit to continuing the important work he started and led for most of his life–developing good character in young people. If we do these two things, I know that our dear Sandy will look down from above with a giant smile on his face.

We appreciate your existence, Sandy…and loved you dearly.

Helping Girls Become Confident Leaders

Contributed by Michele Borba
Parenting advice on how to raise strong, confident daughters from the inside out based on research by the Girl Scouts of the USA

What parent doesn’t want his or her daughter to be a leader? After all, that top role – be it debate captain, head cheerleader, newspaper editor, play director, student body president – is deemed the epitome of success. These are the kids whom adults applaud and peers look up to.

Make no mistake, each leadership success is one more step up a ladder, and each rung up the ladder gives girls that needed “edge” to be accepted to their choice college, win that scholarship or lucrative job. But even more important: those positions are the best ways to build our daughters’ character, integrity and confidence.

There is some truth to that old “We’ve come a long way, baby” slogan. Our girls have come a long way in overcoming the “’Boys Only’ Leadership Club.”

But we still have a ways to go in helping the female gender reach its leadership potential, and interestingly, it’s the girls themselves who tell us we must do more to help them reach that goal.

What Girls Say Impedes Their Potential

The Girl Scouts of the USA conducted a national study of almost 4,000 youth ages eight to 17 on a broad array of issues related to leadership. Their research (entitled Change It Up!) offers important clues as to what our girls say is impeding their potential to leadership. Here are just a few critical findings from the report:

  • Girls say the greatest single barrier to leadership is their self-perception: They lack self-confidence in their own skills and leadership competencies.
  • Girls say that providing supportive environments in which they can acquire leadership
    experience is essential.
  • Girls say that a successful leadership program must address their need for emotional safety, and desire for social and personal development.
  • Girls report that environments in which they can develop leadership skills are scarce. They want more leadership opportunities offered at younger ages.

All four of our girls’ key concerns are solvable. Positive leadership traits are also teachable, though as girls themselves would say, the earlier we begin the better.

Solutions to Boost Girls’ Leadership Abilities

There are proven ways to help kids follow less and lead more. But the best news is that these same leadership traits will help boost your daughter’s potential for success in every arena of life both now and forever. So what are you waiting for? Here is how to apply those findings from my book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions, to help our daughters succeed:

Be a Leadership Example
The Girl Scouts of the USA study found that regardless of age, regions, or income, girls identify immediate family members and relatives—most particularly their mothers—as those they most admire. Be the example you want your daughter to copy.

Push the pause button on your behavior just this past week. How would your daughter describe your leadership style? Do you…

  • Speak up at home and in public?
  • Help out in causes that concern you?
  • Share your opinions with your family?
  • Stay current with what’s going on in the world and talk about them with your daughter?
  • State your political opinions (and listen to hers)?
  • Vote?
  • Bring your daughter along to charitable events you are organizing?
  • Let her know you believe in her traits and boost her confidence?
  • Share examples of women who are strong leaders?
  • Watch media shows that portray confident, strong women?

Don’t undermine your power! Our girls are watching and copying our actions.

Break Those “Sexism” Stereotypes, Pronto!

Girls–and boys–must understand that gender is not a barrier to leadership. Period! We’ve come a long way, but the report shows we still have work to do.

It is crucial that we catch a stereotype (i.e. “Women can’t be leaders…”) before it becomes an engrained belief, locks in doubts, and derails a girl’s confidence for a lifetime.

One way to dispel a stereotype is by starting a family rule: “Anytime a family member says a sweeping generality such as ‘Girls can’t…’ or ‘No woman ever…’ say: “Check that!” The sayer must then give evidence to counter the view.

For instance, your daughter says: “Women can’t be leaders.”

You say: “Check that! Let’s think of women who are! What about…” And then give her an example of a strong woman leader who counters that stereotype.

Here are a few female leaders-past and present-to get you started (and keep adding to the list).

  • Queen Elizabeth II of England
  • President Pratibha Patil of India
  • Queen Margrethe 2 of Denmark
  • President Mary McAleese of Ireland
  • Governor-General Hon. Dr. Dame C. Pearlette Louisy of St. Lucia
  • President Cristina E. Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina
  • President Tarja Halonen of Finland
  • President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines
  • President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia
  • Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany

Stress “There are different leadership styles”

Girls need to learn that there are different leadership styles from active, reflective and supportive.

Provide various examples of strong women leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, and Golda Meir in books, magazines, videos, or in the news.

Point out the quiet, compassionate leadership styles such as a Mother Teresa vs. supportive, team-building styles of others such as Pat Summitt of University of Tennessee.

Help your daughter identify her own leadership style.

The key is to emphasize: You don’t have to be strong and pushy to be a good leader. In fact, a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that the traits of sensitivity and caring are strengths – not weaknesses – for women leaders.

Stress “You need to find your own unique strength and talent, then lead from it. Don’t copy anyone else. Be true to yourself!”

Encourage Her Voice

Girls say their fear of public speaking (followed by shyness and embarrassment) is the biggest obstacle to assuming leadership roles.

If this is your daughter, find ways to build her confidence in speaking up so she is less likely to be intimidated. Here are ways:

  • Enroll her in speech and debate or theatre.
  • Hold family meetings at home in which she learns to share her feelings.
  • Put her in supportive learning environments (girls say such an atmosphere is critical to building confidence).
  • Reinforce her views. Encourage her views. Let her speak!
  • Don’t speak for her!
  • Let her know you value her opinions.
  • Encourage her to find friends who aren’t always the bossy, domineering type so she can
    learn to find her voice.

Provide Early Leadership Opportunities

Girls say that environments in which they can develop crucial leadership skills are scarce. And when we finally do provide those leadership opportunities, they are often “too late.”

The Girl Scouts study found that a girl’s desire to be a leader changes with age. It peaks at 44% among eight- to 10-year-olds, then drops to 36% for 11- to 13-year-olds, rises to 40% for 14- to 15-year-olds, and drops back to 36% for 16- to 17-year-olds.

The crucial lesson: Find ways for your daughter to practice leadership skills earlier so that she finds ways to be in charge, gain confidence and practice those crucial leader skills.

Also, don’t think of leadership roles as only elected positions such as class president or team captain.

Any opportunity for your child to lead another is fine.

For example: babysitting, tutoring the neighbor child, watching a younger sibling, or teaching a small Sunday school class.

The size of the group also doesn’t matter; the opportunity to lead is what does.

Also, watch out that you don’t enroll your daughter in too many adult-supervised, highly-structured activities. Girls will never be able to practice leading if someone always leads them.

Find Ways to Help Your Daughter Make a Difference

The fact is any leader—young or old—can’t lead without a cause.

Start by identifying your daughter’s passions or concerns–polar bears, cleanliness, fossil fuel, graffiti..or whatever!–and then expand her knowledge about that issue.

Cut out news articles, check out library books, surf the Internet, but increase your child’s interest and understanding about that issue.

Encourage her to be in charge of the church clothes drive for the women’s shelter, raise money for flood victims, volunteer to do community service, plan a garage sale for the homeless, or stop the bullying epidemic at her school. Find her passion!

Also, encourage your daughter to develop a plan to connect with like-minded kids to voice their concerns and lead a group–whatever the size–and make a difference through positive leadership.

Then cheer her on and on and on.

In fact, don’t stop cheering!

Let’s keep finding those leadership opportunities and keep cheering our girls on until we can finally say without any reservation: “We really have come a long way, baby. In fact, we’re there!”‘


Resources for this Blog:

Girl Scouts Research Institute, Change It Up! What Girls Say About Redefining Leadership. New York: Girl Scouts of the USA, 2008. National online survey of 2475 girls and 1514 boys between the ages of 8 and 17 years fielded from June 22, 2007 to June 29, 2007.

Need for single-sex, safe environments for girls to confide in trusting adults and others girls: Girl Scouts Research Institute, Feeling Safe. New York: Girl Scouts of the USA, 2003.

K. Mishra, “Your Older Sibling Really is Smarter, Study Says, More Time With Adults May Be a Major Factor,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 22, 2007.