The year was 2003, and Barbara Gruener, a counselor and Character Coach at Westwood Elementary School in Friendswood, TX, was the delegate chosen to represent her school at the 10th National Forum on Character Education. While character development had been a part of Westwood’s school culture for over a decade, the school had fallen prey to the pitfalls of inconsistent leadership. With no strong overarching vision to unite the faculty, Westwood was seeing a conspicuous decline in student behavior and academic achievement. Gruener hoped that the Forum would provide her with the opportunity to learn from top scholars and other practitioners in the field about how to reverse these alarming trends for good.
The concrete practices she took away from the Forum that year were the seeds from which a true school transformation blossomed. The newly formed Character Advisory Committee and CEP’s 11 Principles provided Westwood with the guidance essential to implementing a truly comprehensive and effective character program. Later in the school year, Westwood received more valuable insight and feedback by applying to the National Schools of Character Program. While the school was not named a finalist at that time, Gruener says that all stakeholders “continued to look toward CEP for ways to ignite a culture of character.” After many years of growth through return trips to the Forum and consecutive applications to the NSOC program, Westwood was named a Texas State School of Character in 2007 and a National School of Character in 2009.
The distinction was well-earned. Since Gruener’s first trip to the Forum, discipline referrals have declined by 65%. The attendance rate is pushing beyond 96.7%. Survey data and the astoundingly low teacher turnover rate indicate that teacher satisfaction has never been better. And, to round out this remarkable transformation, Westwood earned Exemplary status from the Texas Education Agency, which is the highest level of recognition given for student standardized testing performance.
These changes can be traced back to the implementation of intentional, pervasive character education. As Gruener says, “With character as our driving force and CEP by our side, Westwood is clearly moving in the right direction.” Her choice of words is pointed: for this school, earning the distinction of National School of Character is certainly a landmark achievement, but it is by no means a final destination. Music teacher Laura Rachita affirms that. “We are constantly looking at ways to go deeper,” she said.
For now, though, the entire Westwood community can still take heart at the fact that their children attend a school where a whopping 99% of students feel that teachers really care about them. As one guest—perhaps recalling a hint of the fear or anxiety that for many become the pervasive emotions of the school years—informed the administration, “I wish this had been my school when I was a child.” While Westwood cannot do much in the way of helping those still haunted by the unfriendly ghosts of classrooms and playgrounds past, it does ensure that every student who walks its halls reaches his or her fullest potential—and feels valued and valuable doing so along the way.