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Character matters

Posted: November 17, 2011 4:57 p.m.
Updated: November 21, 2011 5:00 a.m.

A couple of months back, a friend sent me an article from The New York Times which described the work being done with character development by the administrators of two very different New York City area schools. The first one, KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Charter School, serves economically disadvantaged students, while the other one, the Riverdale Country School, is a very exclusive private school. The administrators of these two very different schools found themselves struggling with the same question; that is, what does it take to be a successful person? 

The headmaster at Riverdale, a veteran educator named Dominic Randolph, found himself wondering if his intensely competitive academic school, from which students matriculate to the nation’s most prestigious postsecondary institutions, is actually preparing its graduates to succeed in the real world. David Levin, the superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City, was finding that his graduates, who have among the highest test scores in the New York City system and have received admission -- often with full scholarships -- to many prominent colleges and universities, were not completing degrees. Levin did find that his students who were graduating from college were not necessarily the ones who had earned the highest grades or SAT scores while at KIPP. Rather, they were the students who had character strengths like optimism and persistence and were the ones who could bounce back from a bad test or some other setback. 

Rudolph and Levin met and began to collaborate over this common concern, and turned to a professor at the University of Pennsylvania named Angela Duckworth to help them get their arms around the issue of character.  Duckworth had been studying character development in schools for several years. As she did, she had come to the conclusion that, especially for low-performing but academically able students, character is as important as ability. Duckworth’s research also indicated that as a general rule, great achievers were passionately dedicated to meeting their goals, regardless of the obstacles. Duckworth decided to call this quality of passionate dedication “grit.” 

To measure “grit,” Duckworth developed a relatively simple 12-question self-rating scale. It included questions like “I finish whatever I begin.” When she took the “grit scale” into the field for testing, she found it to be a remarkable predictor of success. Interestingly, the scale was far more accurate in predicting the success rates of students entering the first year at the United States Military Academy at West Point than a much more complicated measure developed by the school. 

Rudolph and Levin have attempted to work with the issue of character by establishing a grading structure for character in their schools tied to the “grit scale” that goes along with regular academic grading. While I understand what they’re trying to do, I really don’t think I want our schools to start grading character. There’s a level of subjectivity there that bothers me. However, I do believe that character development, in a way that works in partnership with families, the faith community and the community as a whole, must be part of what we do in our schools if we are to be successful in our academic mission. I am very pleased with and proud of what our schools are doing in this area. 

The following are a few of many examples:

Two programs that have been implemented in our district through the “Safe Schools/Healthy Students” grant, Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS) and Too Good for Drugs and Violence, focus strongly on the importance of character. PBIS has already shown itself to be extremely effective in terms of reducing classroom disruption and discipline referrals. I think the key to this program is its focus on doing the right thing. The same can be said about the “Too Good for Drugs and Violence” curriculum. Keeping the idea of doing the right thing in front of kids is essential to their learning to make good choices when no one is watching.

Last year, Doby’s Mill Elementary School was recognized by the state as a “School of Character.” Doby’s Mill utilizes an approach to character development that infuses it into the entire curriculum. Students at Doby’s Mill write about, read about and talk about character throughout their day. The school also reinforces character development through a variety of public service projects and recognition of students for good character. 

Jackson School utilizes a program called “Project Wisdom,” which uses character words of the month that are connected to work in reading, writing and other subjects, and are also used in lessons delivered during guidance time. 

All students in Level I programs at ATEC participate in a two-day employability skills workshop, which includes focus on character-related issues relevant to the workplace. 

During the first nine weeks of school, students at Lugoff-Elgin Middle School participated in an in-depth study of bullying by all students reading a novel called “The Bully.” In addition to reading the novel, students wrote about and discussed what they had read.  

Again, these are just a few of many examples. Character development just doesn’t happen. It has to be emphasized and nurtured both inside and outside of school. Our district is committed to working with families and the community to help our students develop the strong and resilient character that they will need long after their school days are over. 

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is frank.morgan@kcsdschools.net. Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district Website. I also invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at www.kershaw.k12.sc.us.

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