The state of Missouri designates Bayless School District as one of its most diverse districts per capita. Bayless Elementary School’s student body is no exception with 43 percent minority students. Over 17 different languages are spoken at home throughout the area and there is a particularly large Bosnian population. Meanwhile, 60.5 percent of the student body receives free or reduced-price lunch.
This situation proved challenging for Bayless Elementary School. As Principal Gina Siebe remembers, “After we received our first survey results, we were absolutely devastated to learn that our children did not have a sense of belonging in our school.” This lack of emotional connection at school seemed to be affecting more than just the school climate: student academic work at Bayless did not measure up to national standards. Only 50% of students were reading at or above their grade reading level. Something wasn’t clicking at Bayless.
Once they received the first survey results, however, Siebe recalls that “We desperately worked to find ways to change.” As district superintendent Dr. Maureen Clancy-May puts it, the staff at Bayless Elementary “turn[ed] challenges into opportunities” with the help of CEP.
Siebe looked to CEP’s Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education as a guide for her effort to turn the school around. CEP “provides a tremendous level of support for teachers [and] for schools in implementing those 11 Principles,” Siebe said. Bayless began its character education efforts with a staff-wide analysis of where Bayless stood in relation to each of the 11 principles. Siebe found this to be an invaluable way to begin working toward improvement: “Visiting each principle allowed us to see where we were and where we needed to go.” Moreover, the initial staff involvement in character education was key. Siebe said that if you give staff authority and autonomy to implement their own creative character education ideas, “your character education program is going to soar.”
Bayless also connected with and learned from other schools that had successful character education programs through CEP. Principal Siebe remembers, “We were able to learn about the good things that we were doing in our school and the things that needed to change…We made goals for our school.”
Bayless’s character education program took off. “One of the ways that we changed was…learning how to have class meetings,” Siebe said. “Students have an opportunity for voice and choice in their day, and that helped us to develop a sense of belonging in our students.” Bayless still focuses on nurturing student autonomy, goal-setting, “voice and choice,” social skills, bullying prevention, and conflict resolution in students.
Bayless also worked to increase parent involvement at home and at school as a way to build caring relationships with all students and their families. Bayless created the Practical Parenting Partnership, which recruits and trains parents to become active participants in school events. Parents educate other parents on parenting skills and the importance of academics while engaging families in interesting and lively activities.
Today, it is clear that Bayless Elementary School’s character education initiatives have paid off. Superintendent Clancy-May describes the Bayless environment as one in which the school’s core values are completely integrated into everyday life. When you walk through the doors, she says, you can “feel it, see it, and taste it.”
Since the full implementation of character education initiatives at Bayless, disciplinary referrals have decreased from 263 in 2007-08 to 73 in 2010-11, and 95% of students now feel they are safe at school and have concern for others. “Character education in our building has had a great impact on the climate and [has built] that level of belonging—feeling a sense of belonging—in our school,” Siebe said.
Bayless’s focus on character education has also had impressive academic results. Before these efforts, only 50% of students read at or above their expected grade level; over the past four years, however, 94% of Bayless students read at or above their expected grade level by year’s end. As Principal Siebe puts it, “When students feel comfortable, they’re ready to learn.”