The big news of Jan. 30 didn’t stop Todd McKinney and Scott Doty from their task of the day.
On that day, the two received news Farmington Middle School was named a 2018 Missouri State School of Character by Character.org—a noteworthy designation for the program the two lead at the school. And, before they received word of the award, the two were meeting with staff at the high school about character education.
The school is one of 64 “Schools of Character” designated by Character.org, a national advocate and leader for character in collaboration with the state of Missouri.
The school is recognized as one demonstrating the use of character development to drive a positive impact on academics, student behavior and the school climate.
Each year, Character.org certifies schools and districts at the state level that demonstrate a dedicated focus on character development which has a true positive impact on academic achievement, student behavior and school climate.
The Schools of Character application process is an opportunity for schools and districts to receive thoughtful feedback for growth and excellence in the area of character development through Character.org’s “11 Principles of Effective Character Education” framework. It is also a method of recognizing exemplary schools and districts in the nation.
Criteria for selection are based on those principles, which include providing students with opportunities for moral action, fostering shared leadership and engaging families and communities as partners in the character-building effort.
The character education program in the district began at the middle school almost six years ago. The staff at Farmington Middle School took a proactive approach in 2012 to develop strong character among the students who walk the halls of the school.
Assistant Principal McKinney sent out an email to staff, seeking their opinion on character education and how best to implement it at the school.
From those who gave their input, a committee was formed of middle school staff.
Since that time, committees are established at each of the district’s campuses.
“There is (character education) going on in every building,” McKinney said. “What is guiding us are the 11 principles of character education. That’s what guides the whole process.”
According to the website, Character.org, those principles are:
The school community promotes core ethical and performance values as the foundation of good character; the school defines “character” comprehensively to include thinking, feeling, and doing; the school uses a comprehensive, intentional, and proactive approach to character development; the school creates a caring community; the school provides students with opportunities for moral action; the school offers a meaningful and challenging academic curriculum that respects all learners, develops their character, and helps them to succeed; the school fosters students’ self-motivation; the school staff is an ethical learning community that shares responsibility for character education and adheres to the same core values that guide the students; the school fosters shared leadership and long-range support of the character education initiative; the school engages families and community members as partners in the character-building effort; and the school regularly assesses its culture and climate, the functioning of its staff as character educators, and the extent to which its students manifest good character.
“When you look at those principles, it’s got everything from community and parent involvement, student leaders … that’s what guides the process,” McKinney said. “It’s through our committee work where we make sure we are hitting on each of those 11 principles.”
Doty serves as a program facilitator with McKinney. He said the aspects of “voice”—from students, parents, staff—makes sure all have input in to the core values of the school and how they are followed.
“Every single activity we do is infused with character education,” Doty said.
On Jan. 30, the two met with staff at the high school—working to expand on the character education at the upper level.
“What we talk about is head, hands and heart,” McKinney said. “(The students) get a head knowledge. You are teaching them these terms and saying ‘this is what it means … this is what it looks like’ … here’s some application for it. The hands is doing service.
“But, how do you really change kids’ hearts? That’s the hard part.”
McKinney said the students have to know and understand what character looks like before that change takes place. That’s where the opportunities to serve come in and play such an important role.
“True service learning really goes along to where they understand why they’re serving,” McKinney said. “What the need is and how those people are affected by this thing we are trying to help them with and then what our help means to them.”
Students at the high school were the first group to go through the character education process as middle school students.
Doty said they’ve received feedback from high school teachers saying they see a marked difference in the students when they arrive from middle school. So, the two say the seed for making a difference within the four walls of the school and beyond is planted in this group.
“From ninth grade to twelfth grade, we’ve got to figure out—when these people leave here—that life is not about you,” McKinney said. “It’s not about you and what you can do for you. These things that you’re learning, this further training that you’re going to receive, how are you going to use that to impact the people around you … your family, your community, your church family ... whatever it is you are involved in. How are you going to use that to better the people around you?”
“Life is relational—it’s not about you. It’s about how you pour into the lives of other people.”
McKinney said human nature is to be selfish—looking out for one’s own needs to be met.
Middle school level
McKinney noted the work of the committee at Farmington Middle School has been outstanding—and the award designates as such.
“Our committee has been fantastic, as far as the amount of work and just the effort—the mental effort, the physical effort, the time—put into this,” he said, “they’ve been great.”
Schools are required to submit an application for consideration as a “State School of Character”—something McKinney said was not necessarily on the radar for the group.
“For a long time, we had no intention of applying to be a ‘School of Character’,” he said, “that’s not why we did it.”
There has been several staff attend LACE training, which stands for “Leadership Academy of Character Education.”
“Scott’s been through it, I’ve been through it,” he said. “We have several staff in our district who have been through it—I think it’s about 10 people have been LACE trained.”
McKinney said there is much discussion about State Schools of Character—but, implementing this program was not to receive accolades from others.
“We did (character education) because we wanted to do what we thought was best for our kids in Farmington,” he said.
The committee only considered applying after a recommendation made by a member of Character-Plus during a site visit in the fall of 2016.
“She said we should apply to be a School of Character since we were doing all these things,” he said. “She just wanted to stop by and see what we were doing because several of us had been through LACE.”
Doty discovered how lengthy the application process would be when he began looking into the school applying for the designation. He and Library Media Specialist Kate Dillon began the process of applying.
“We started the groundwork then,” Doty said. “It’s been a year of collecting information and trying to get our brains wrapped around what the application was asking.”
The process involved collecting data from the last five years—using newspaper articles on programs developed using the tenets of character education and other information as well.
“Kate and I were limited on what we could include,” Doty said.
“They did all the work on it. Our committee, obviously, helped with coming up with artifacts, but Kate and Scott really drove that effort,” McKinney said, adding Doty attended a grant writing workshop where he was able to see sample applications from schools receiving the designation.
Expanding beyond the middle school
As McKinney shared, the character education program started at the middle school level is branching out to all of the district’s campuses.
“Since we’ve been through the process … we are going out into the different buildings—K through four, five and six, high school—and we make sure they are being guided by these 11 principles and that they understand what kind of artifacts would fit under each of these principles,” McKinney said, “and tell them, if it comes to apply to be a ‘School of Character’ … you’re going to need this.”
That work involves finding out where each of the buildings’ character education programs are as far as meeting those principles, the strengths and weaknesses, as well as developing extended committees—which includes staff and community members.
“Next year, every building should have an extended committee which meets every other month with them,” McKinney said.
Looking back at the last five years, Doty said the committee looks at strategies used to apply the principles, evaluating their effectiveness to if it works—or, if it’s time to develop a new tool.
“We’ve haven’t had a significant amount of time to reflect until going through writing this application process,” Doty said. “Being able to reflect on what we did was overwhelming. I think the committee was so overwhelmed with how far we’ve come and how much we’ve accomplished over the last five years.”
Programs usually receive the “State School of Character” designation seven years after implementation—putting Farmington Middle School ahead of the curve. The school will hold the designation for three years, at which time the building will be required to go through the application process again.
“What I value most about the experience is this is the feedback we got from Character.org, a nationally recognized, evidence-based practice,” Doty said. “Their evaluators sent us feedback on our strengths, obviously, but also areas for growth.
“For the committee and staff that have been really invested here, (the designation) is validation. I think it’s empowered us even more. We know what’s good for kids, we try to keep those things in place, but actually doing this under the guise of an evidence-based practice—the best practice—and being told by those gurus ‘hey, you guys are doing this’ … it’s validation for us.”