Forget Hillary Clinton's village. It takes an entire district and its surrounding community to raise a child of model character. That much can be said for Lawrence Township, whose LifeSkills for Building Character initiative has everyone from parents to the police department reinforcing 10 character qualities established by the district as an integral part of the K-12 curriculum.
"Eight years ago, a flier came across my desk for a conference ...on creating a character education model," says Duane Hodgin, assistant superintendent. He attended the conference with a colleague, Gordon Mendenhall, and returned to create "Caring About Character," which was implemented seven years ago. Now Hodgin is also author of a book on the subject, The Best of Character: A Resource Book for K-12 Educators (National Center for Youth Issues, 2001).
A 30-member committee of teachers, religious leaders, community members, parents, business leaders, administrators and students was formed. "We spent that [first] year just dialoging and sending people to different character conferences," Hodgin says. The committee created the theme "Caring About Character" and 10 accompanying LifeSkills virtues (see sidebar).
The model is different because it is not just an add-on, says Esther Schaeffer, CEO/executive director of Character Education Partnership, which runs the annual National Schools of Character Awards. Lawrence Township was one of 10 winners announced in late 2002.
"One of the things we look for [on district applications] is whether the central office is committed," Schaeffer says. "When they're putting the curricular framework together, is character infused into it? Is it encouraged from the top on down? Are ... community [members] involved?" The answers were "yes" for Lawrence Township, the only 2002 district-wide winner.
"We told teachers to keep doing what they're doing, but make character lessons part of it," Hodgin says. In its holistic approach to implementing the character model, the district changed its mission statement to reflect the initiative.
Teachers incorporate it into lessons every day, Hodgin says. In biology class, for example, honesty has come into play in a lesson on ecosystems and food chains, where students graph their analysis of owl pellets. Then they discuss the impact of guessing, reporting inaccurately or simply making up results. Mendenhall, who spent 32 years in the district and used to teach this lesson, would point out that we all "take medications, use tools [and] drive cars based on the reports of research developed in the same way."
Currently a professor of education at the University of Indianapolis, Mendenhall says that the character emphasis in Lawrence Township has affected academic status, too. "Even the honor society definitions became more congruent with character education," he says.
Character education is also infused into disciplinary practice. Students sent to the principal's office are asked how they failed to meet one or more of the LifeSkills traits, and how they could change that. "It's part of the climate and culture of the school, extracurricular activities and the community as a whole," Hodgin says.
A GRASS-ROOTS EFFORT
The entrance to every school in Lawrence Township boasts a banner touting the LifeSkills model. But promotion of the character initiative extends beyond the school walls. "Effective character education is school-based, but community embraced," Hodgin says.
Local businesses have hung posters promoting the LifeSkills. A flag for it hangs beneath the American flag at the mayor's office and the city government center. And every local police car is tagged with a "Caring About Character" bumper sticker.
Still, Hodgin points out that daily classroom efforts drive the character lessons home. The junior high choir teachers, for example, have chosen songs like "Stars All Work Together" (to reflect teamwork), "Looking Up" (perseverance) and "Keep on Believing" (effort). In art class, students have learned respect, teamwork, fairness and caring by critiquing the work of friends. And in a 3-D design class, students have demonstrated caring by volunteering to teach pottery-making to a rehabilitation center's blind clients.
Support from principals makes a difference, Hodgin notes. "They allow the teachers the creativity and flexibility to make it work. It looks different in every school, but it works." Hodgin's passionate leadership has made a huge difference, as well, says Superintendent Michael Copper. "The students call him Dr. Pep."
Professional development support includes sending teachers annually to character education conferences. In-service training introduce new classroom activities to provide a forum for teachers to showcase lessons they've developed themselves.
The central office also offers character education materials that can be checked out for three weeks. And a monthly two-page character education newsletter reaches more than 1,000 teachers and administrators. "The success of the model depends on how you market it," Hodgin says.
Christie Love, a former teacher whose three children have attended school in the district, is certainly sold on the idea of character education in schools. "I know how difficult it is to raise a child in a perfect environment. ...Schools should never be held accountable for the outcome of a child ...but they may be the only places that possess the chance to touch every child." As executive director of the Lawrence Township School Foundation, Love has had the chance to contribute to the initiative, too. Last year the foundation donated more than $100,000 to the district's character and other efforts.
As might be expected, quantifying student character development is difficult. Mary Ellen Hamer, director of school and community relations, says success is evident in decreasing disciplinary cases and high attendance rates.
Yet, some of the most poignant examples of success are purely anecdotal. "In 2002, the Lawrence Central High football team was supposed to play a homecoming game against our rival Martinsville," Hamer recalls. "But we had a series of tornadoes that weekend, and the game was cancelled."
While Lawrence Township escaped without much damage, Martinsville wasn't so lucky. "Our football team got on a bus and went down to Martinsville to help with the cleanup effort," Hamer says. "We received a letter from the superintendent of Martinsville who said that he had heard about our LifeSkills for Building Character model, and he witnessed its example in our football players that weekend."
TAKING CHARACTER FORWARD
The district hopes to see more examples like this. Luckily, little funding is needed to maintain the initiative. "Yes, we need resources to send teachers to conferences or to print up brochures, but it's not a big deal. If we're out of money in one area, we'll use money from another budget area, because the LifeSkills model extends to all areas of education," Hodgin says. "I think it's a matter of priority. What could be more important than character?"
According to CEP's Schaeffer, money is generally not the top threat to character programs anyway. "We're relying so much on pencil and paper tests to determine if students are well educated, and that's driving other stuff, like character education, out of the curriculum," she says.
Copper views the initiative as a way to help meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind. "The focus on the continuous improvement and a standards-based curriculum and assessment tends to take us away from ... other areas that parents have counted on schools for, such as providing students with a safe and friendly environment for learning," he says. But improved character and attitude, he points out, breed better learning.
For other districts considering a character education model, Hodgin advises, "Think big, but start small and persevere."
Schaeffer says the formula for success is simple. Lawrence Township's leaders "didn't have [the initiative] eat into a tremendous amount of their time. ... They gradually introduced it and worked it into the curriculum. They did a very sensible job of getting folks involved."
Moira Cotlier, email@example.com, is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Conn.