There is no denying the middle school years can be the toughest on students.
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 Todd 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.
Just before winter break, the character education committee at the school sat down to talk about how the focus on enriching the program came about.
A noticeable change
McKinney explains the group knew they wanted to visit other schools to see what works—and get a snapshot of what character education looks like in action.
The school was designated as Character Plus at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, but McKinney admitted “not many of us had any idea what that meant” at that time.
A guest speaker from the Character Plus institution visited Farmington Middle and spoke about how character education made an impact on a school in the Fox School District.
The group learned Richwood Middle School saw “dramatic changes” in their students once character education was implemented into the curriculum.
Learning about these changes led the group from Farmington to visit the campus and see first-hand what the possibilities could be.
“It was apparent when you walked in the building. The atmosphere was such that it was evident there was something going on in that school making a change in the way kids behaved,” said Counselor Tess Moore.
She recalled paper vines hanging from the ceiling of the school as a part of the “jungle” theme adopted by Richwood.
“I thought, ‘why aren’t any of the kids touching this and pulling the leaves down?’ I realized I wanted that for our school—for our kids to be respectful like that and respect the property,” she said.
The size and demographic make-up of the school in Jefferson County is similar to that of FMS, explained instructor Carla Gibbs.
“It was our kids,” she said.
But, what is different from the Farmington school is the perception Richwood had in its district.
“At one time, it was a very rough school. The looks of it, feel and attitude was (Richwood) is a really bad school,” said McKinney.
Steps to making changes
McKinney and Lincoln Intermediate Assistant Principal participated in and recently graduated from L.A.C.E. Academy—Leadership Academy in Character Education.
The Leadership Academy in Character Education (LACE) provides principals and assistant principals with the knowledge base, resources and skills to implement comprehensive character education throughout their school community.
The director for the year-long academy, hosted at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, is Dr. Marvin Berkowitz.
McKinney said ideas he learned from the academy—along with the information the group gathered during site visits—helped to guide what they thought character education should look like at the school.
Teaching the Eight Pillars
Art teacher Kimberlee Kennedy is a member of the character education committee. Her work greets visitors, students and staff each day when they walk in the front doors.
The eight pillars adopted by the school—Empathy, Accountability, Perseverance, Honesty, Respect, Humility, Courageous Leadership and Service—are represented as holding up FMS.
The sun shines bright behind the pillars painted on the wall—signifiying, perhaps, how the bright rays of good character shine out beyond the school.
All throughout the building students are reminded of the eight pillars for character education adopted by FMS.
In the spring of last year Gibbs, Todd Varhalla, Allyson Hensley and Jared Howe wrote the curriculum for the character education course, adopting these eight pillars of integrity as their character education focus.
Students in both grades take the Character Leadership class this year. They spend five class periods focusing on each of the pillars—something Gibbs admits is harder than it sounds.
“If someone tells me to teach my students inference, I can do that. If someone tells me to teach my students to be empathetic—that’s harder,” she admits.
It’s a matter of learning how to teach students to express those characteristics and recognizing each students knowledge of listening skills, ability to read body language and other factors.
Learning opportunities arise when a lesson on empathy is being taught and one student says something to another.
“At least there is an awareness now of what these values are,” McKinney said.
The group also recognizes it is a process.
“We’re planting the seeds for further growth. You’re teaching listening skills—all those other key pieces that build into empathy,” Moore said.
—editor’s note: In next week’s Farmington Press, learn more about what changes were made as a way to include all Farmington Middle School students towards building strong character at the school.