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.