by Karen Geller
“Every morning everybody makes a decision: they can let poverty, violence, tough neighborhoods influence how they come in to school, or they can say I’m in an environment that cares for me, respects me and is going to help me.” Principal Anabel Soler, North Park Academy
In January, 2017, CITRS (Character, Integrity, Trust, Relationships, Success) in partnership with Character Counts! (CC!) provided a pilot opportunity to the Buffalo Public School System to implement a ground-breaking three-year comprehensive character development initiative which has made huge strides in weaving character throughout the culture of the 21 schools selected. CITRS is a non-partisan, non-sectarian, non-profit organization that partners with schools and organizations to plan and implement effective character initiatives in schools. The Buffalo Schools Committee and CITRS began a collaborative process that led to the selection of an evidence-based framework, including, SEL, interpersonal skills and academic improvement, that would serve as a key element in efforts to achieve the agreed upon goals.
CITRS and CHARACTER COUNTS! have partnered with the over-arching goal to cultivate ethical, respectful, and caring school environments in which students will thrive and succeed academically, socially and emotionally.
Principals who had a voluntary mindset had joined together and articulated that they wanted to make a difference in the lives of their students. They wanted to work with stakeholders to develop a framework that would address needed improvements in their school climate with the ultimate goal to create a sustainable culture and climate of character.
The Logic Model: CITRS/CC! 3 Year Character Development Initiative
Goal: To provide initiatives that cultivate respectful, caring, fair, and inspiring environments in which children can thrive and succeed academically, socially and emotionally.
Short-term Outcomes (years 1-3) are measurable changes in behavior, knowledge, or skills:
*adoption of common language
*improved school culture and climate
*existing curriculum incorporates character development
* attendance * academic improvement
*parental involvement *prosocial behavior
*ethical and moral decision-making and problem-solving skills
*embracing virtues and positive character traits
*bullying in school *bullying on social media
*truancy *physical altercations
*violence, threats *weapons
*cheating, lying *stealing
*discipline referrals, detentions, suspensions, expulsions
CITRS leaders met with the Buffalo School System leaders and principals to define requirements and ongoing support. The school district administered baseline surveys.
Orientation sessions were held for administration, principals, deans, teachers, counselors, athletic coaches and support staff to introduce the initiative and discuss implementation.
Each school principal designated 5 to 12 “Champion” team members per school to attend a 2-day CC! certification training with post course follow-up training. These trainings provided strategies for faculty and staff to adopt a common language using the 6 Pillars -Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship.
This interactive training provided the resources to incorporate character development throughout the school’s existing curriculum as well as an app with daily character lessons that teachers rave about. The app is a dynamic tool for building character that customizes lesson content, provides positive reinforcement, positive feedback, character pledges and challenges.
Teacher, Lauren Hackett, reported that the CC! training “was an exciting training like no other and that she left the training with ideas and tools that she literally implemented the next day.”
A CITRS mentor/coach visits each school twice per month to provide guidance and modeling of ongoing Champion’s activities. These mentors/coaches meet bimonthly with each school’s leadership to review progress of the initiative. They then report to district leadership regarding each school’s progress.
There is an annual evaluation and survey to measure initiative effectiveness.
The Champions and the coaches are the CITRS signature for success!!
Following the Training
Teachers articulate that students are taking the qualities, like trustworthiness and respect, and rolling them out to be a good person and to be the best they can be. They need that foundation to be good citizens.
The school focuses on one pillar a month and posters, circles, morning announcements and lessons reinforce that pillar. Teachers submit morning “shout out” forms which praise students for positive character traits. When other students hear the “shout out” they take on these positive character traits as well.
School Psychologist, Kelly Jaszka, explains they tie the pillars to student actions, reinforcing their good behavior to make good choices. This has made a big impact not only on the school culture, but it is a positive factor that continues when students leave school and are at home and in the community.
An external evaluator, Community Connections of Greater New York (CCNY), notes that “it is impressive that the majority of parents, faculty, staff and students recognize the importance of the initiative.”
“Over 75% of schools have started to create a paradigm shift by developing school policies and adopting a common language of character.” (CCNY’s November 1, 2017 report).
This buy-in by teachers, staff, administrators and parents using the same common language guides agendas, decisions, activities and continues to move the program forward.
Jeanne Craft, Chief Innovation Officer at CITRS, believes that the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education from character.org supports comprehensive character development by guiding the implementation of core values, embedding character within every aspect of a school’s culture. To that end she assures that when CITRS/Character Counts! works with schools, “character is woven throughout everything the school does – throughout all curriculum, student activities, staff and student actions, community-wide activities, and includes all stakeholders and constituents.”
The many curricular materials available are a valuable resource. In addition, there are ongoing professional development opportunities throughout the year that reinforce and expand upon the 2-day certificated trainings – Champion conference calls, professional development videos and CC! learning opportunities provided by Master Trainer, Gary Smit, and Mentors/Coaches. Such opportunities contribute to the depth of the initiative and will continue to strengthen each school’s ability to develop procedures and practices that will promote positive beliefs and behaviors and the development of a school wide improvement in culture and climate. Continued engagement of parents, families and the community with CC! will catalyze support and buy-in from all stakeholders that will enhance students’ ethical, social and academic success.
Suzanne Bracci, Lead Mentor/Coach for the initiative, states, “I have never been a part of something so groundbreaking and impactful in the area of education and character. Not only are we teaching about what it means to be a person of good character, but we are promoting critical social skills like resiliency, determination, and growth mindset that are necessary for a successful and happy life. When a middle school student told me that she wants to stay out of jail and be a good person, and that the 6 Pillars of Character will help her to do that, I knew we were making a difference.”
Lorene Boyd, a dedicated and enthusiastic Dean of Students at West Hertel Academy, believes that academics, social and emotional learning and character are all woven together to become one and it is essential. She adamantly declares “we want our kids to do well academically…. I am 100% behind Character Counts. I am their biggest champion and I would like to see it throughout the city.”
Through the rich curriculum and the app, ethical and moral decision-making and problem solving skills have increased. Students are modeling virtues and positive character traits.
According to some principals, bullying, threats and violence have decreased. Some schools have reported a decrease in disciplinary referrals. Assistant Principal at the Lydia T. Wright School, Carrie Myers, believes wholeheartedly in this framework and the difference that it has made behaviorally and data wise in discipline referrals in her school. This year she reports a decrease in referrals from over 1000 to under 400 referrals at her school!
Beginning the character journey and planning for school climate and culture improvement takes great vision. Progressing from working with stakeholders, to the selection of an evidence-based framework, and all of the hard work invested in the strategic planning stages is very valuable. The Buffalo School District’s Character Development Initiative in partnership with CITRS and CC! has made remarkable progress in one year. They provided meaningful professional development, ongoing mentor/coaching to trained Champions and school administration, common character-based language, curriculum resources, collaboration, parent involvement, and hands-on student prosocial learning activities. It often takes years for schools to reach this level of commitment to character.
This is a scalable, innovative character initiative that offers significant promise to the character industry as it can be easily duplicated in other districts. In addition, scaling reduces costs substantially.
It is through the leadership of the CITRS staff, Clay Hamlin, Melissa Nunez, Brendan Petersen, Jeanne Craft and Caitlyn Bouchard, located in Philadelphia, and Lead Mentor/Coach, Suzanne Bracci, Mentors/Coaches, Suzanne McKenney and Melissa Frawley, in Buffalo, and members of CC!, Michael Josephson and Gary Smit, in partnership with the enthusiasm of district leadership, faculty, administrators and staff of the 21 Buffalo Public Schools that they have achieved beyond the goals that they set out to achieve in one year. Kudos for a job well done!