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CC! on Electronic Sign

Campus-wide Character: How Hinsdale Developed a Six-Pillar Culture

As we draw closer to the Character Education Partnership’s annual conference (Oct. 30 – Nov. 2 in Washington, D.C.), we are featuring guest posts from educators who represent a CEP-designated National School of Character. In today’s post, Illinois educator Pam Bylsma looks back at Hinsdale Central High School’s journey to becoming a National School of Character. 

Before becoming Assistant Superintendent of Academics at Hinsdale Township District 86 in Illinois, Pam Bylsma was Principal of Riverside-Brookfield High School, near Chicago. Before that, she served for 11 years at Hinsdale Central High School, where she was Dean of Students, Assistant Principal and CHARACTER COUNTS! Coordinator. Read about the successful CC! program she set up at Riverside-Brookfield here

Learn more about the CEP conference and save your spot here.

By Pam Bylsma

It is felt in a myriad of subtle, seemingly insignificant moments: a student holding open a door for a secretary, a support staff member warmly welcoming a parent, a group of students asking an isolated youth to join them for lunch, teachers working collaboratively on an interdisciplinary project, an administrator chatting with students about their fundraising project as they eat their lunch. It is the culture of the school, a powerful essence that permeates every level of the organization, affecting all stakeholders in significant measure. The culture outlined here describes Hinsdale Central High School, a place where character and values truly matter.

Cool 2 CareIt was not always this way. Our journey began in the spring of 2000. It was post-Columbine, and our faculty wondered what warning signs we might be missing and how we could support our young people to keep them safe. Enrollment was on the rise, and there were indicators of stress: more profanity in the hall, more disenfranchised youth, heightened confrontation and disrespect, and a rise in risk-taking behavior. Hinsdale Central High School was a high performing school with a national reputation for rigorous academics and competitive athletic programs, but we set a new goal: “to improve school culture in an atmosphere of growth and change.”

A year-long committee convened to explore how a character education program might advance this goal. We surveyed our parents and staff members to find out what values they felt were central in their homes and in our school. The responses of both groups mirrored the Six Pillars of CHARACTER COUNTS! (CC!), trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

Next, we created a Student Culture Survey to find out how our students were feeling about themselves, their school and their peers. We conducted extensive research on school challenges, discussed the results, and secured a commitment from the faculty to improve our school climate. Recognizing that all our stakeholders saw the need for change, we embraced a comprehensive, long-term initiative to re-culture our school and, in 2001, made the commitment to become a school of character, selecting CC! as our framework.

Our research showed that in order to ensure long-term, profound change, we had to integrate character education into all facets of our organization. Therefore, we structured our program on Rick DuFour and Bob Eakers’ “Professional Learning Communities” model, which includes the following elements: Development of Shared Vision, Collective Inquiry Used to Determine Annual Goals, School-wide Collaboration, Action Orientation and Experimentation and Data-Driven Decision Making. We established three collaborative core teams: Student Life, Curriculum and Community Connections. Then we created a vision of what we wanted our school to look like in five years. We used these aspirations along with our quantitative and qualitative data to form our goals for the first several years.

Conflict Resolution TrainingFrom the onset, we took the stance that CC! wouldn’t be the answer to our questions. Rather, it would help us ask the pertinent questions, such as, “What should caring look like in our school?” and “How can we provide opportunities for teens in the area of citizenship in our community?” What helped our initiative be successful was the support of our principal, who required that each curricular department chair assign teachers to our three collaborative teams. This brought a spirit of collegiality to our work and provided staff with the chance to work inter-departmentally on a building-wide vision. Educators who never worked with others outside of their departments were energized by spending time with like-minded colleagues. Our principal further enhanced our initiative by requiring each individual to set a personal work goal related to CC!. This ensured that our teachers, coaches and sponsors would integrate the principles of CC! into their classrooms, teams and activities. When a discipline issue surfaces, our Deans of Students process the event by having the offender reflect on which Pillar of Character was ignored, stressing how the poor choice the student made was not consistent with the values we promote. From the parents to the bus driver to the cafeteria worker, all were trained in CC! and began to view themselves as character builders.

Most important to our goal to embed the Six Pillars into the daily life of the school was the commitment to involve our students in that process through shared leadership. We have consciously encouraged our students to become active citizens, each challenged to develop his or her leadership potential. To accomplish this goal, we have sought to engage our students’ understanding of issues (knowledge), followed by getting them to relate to the issues on a personal level (feeling), and culminating in some concrete work for them to accomplish (actions). Thomas Lickona refers to this as “the head, the heart and the hands.”  We surmised that teaching our students to reason through moral challenges alone would NOT translate into moral behavior unless we engaged each individual on an emotional level. Thus, making our school a genuinely caring place came first. This is how we have developed ethical students who truly care about others.

Hinsdale students perform "Break Down the Walls," an anti-bullying skit.

Hinsdale students perform “Break Down the Walls,” an anti-bullying skit.

The transformation didn’t happen overnight. At the beginning we experienced some resistance from students, who were fearful that we were going to preach to them like little children. They dreaded some “cheesy” homeroom program with a value a week or a moral lesson for the month.  High school students, especially those at our school, do not appreciate that kind of simplistic approach. To them, it feels artificial and condescending. If you want to become a school of character, then you need to respect the dignity of your teenage students by inviting them to the table to reflect honestly with adults about their world, their lives and their school.

It took us by surprise when our initial surveys revealed that our teens didn’t feel useful or valued by adults. Now we tell our students that we see them as vital resources, providing them with authentic opportunities to engage in moral action by identifying areas of need in their school and their community. We ask them what type of world they want to live in. Then we reassure them that they have the power to craft any reality they want, and we will help them do it. Empowering students to see their potential to be people of good character who can positively impact their world has been one of our main keys to success.

BDTW logoWith their help, the school now has student-created, student-led programs on anti-bullying as well as conflict resolution skills. Students come forward on their own to propose initiatives, such as an assembly to confront violence, or to plan area/global service projects, like our Pakistani earthquake relief drive, Hurricane Katrina supply drive, anti-malaria initiatives in Africa, and South African LEAP School partnership. We can see the power of CC! in the presence of countless programs that did not exist prior to its inception.  These programs, the majority of which were student-created, include: Let’s Help Out, Citizen Club, Read to Lead, Gay Straight Alliance, Tolerance Month, Teens Against Violence, Dancing for Devils Dance Marathon (our school’s mascot is the Red Devils), Devilish Deeds Character Awards, Freshman Welcome Skit, Teachers in Need Fund, Black History Month, Peer Buddies, Activities Fair, CC! annual school-wide assemblies, Make a Difference Awards, Student Staff Spirit Club, Peer Tutoring, and sports team volunteerism. In addition, membership in all existing activities has blossomed.

Autism Walk

Students, teachers, staff and community members raised $34,000 to support “Charlie’s Gift,” a local center that supports children and families touched by autism.

As students mature from their freshman to their senior year, they embark on a CC! journey of personal growth and self-discovery. When they enter our school, students work with their counselors to assess their learning and character strengths/weaknesses and to set goals for their academic and personal development. At the end of the each school year, the students reflect on their progress and set new character goals for the upcoming year. We tell them that high school is a time to build both their character resume as well as their academic resume.

Finally, we do not communicate to our students that character education is something that we are doing to them.  We work alongside them, building our character day to day, seeking to adhere to the same Pillars that we want them to aspire to. We want them to partner with us as we work to be a person, a school, and a community of character. We work together on service projects and allow all to join in. The staggering amount of service work that our school engages in — through curricular projects, sports team and activity volunteerism, full-school initiatives and parent programs — shows the extent to which our CC! philosophy has been embraced by our school community.

On the first day of school, the president of the student council speaks to the incoming freshmen students about what a special place our school is. The year we applied for recognition as a National School of Character, president Jon Rogowski told the incoming ninth graders, “The CC! program is tackling everything from promoting kindness and stopping bullying, to policies on cheating, academic integrity, plagiarism and honesty. What makes Central such a special place is the willingness of students to adhere to the Six Pillars of Character…. If you stay true to yourself and your values and grow with pride at Central you will travel down the right path.”

In 2008, eight years after our commitment to re-culture our school, the Character Education Partnership named Hinsdale Central High School an Illinois State School of Character and a National School of Character. Six years and four principals later, the initiative is still going strong due to our successful marriage of passion and structure. We are enthusiastic yet organized, sharing the reins of leadership as we work to make a difference in our school, community, state, nation and world. This is critically important work, and our quantitative discipline and academic data show that it improved our school culture, while our qualitative data demonstrate the profound difference it has made in the lives of our students and staff.

I hope our 14-year journey inspires other high schools to embrace CC!, too.

NSOC 2008

Empty Desks at Washington Monument Left as Message for the Candidates

Visitors to the Washington Monument were greeted with an unusual display this past week – 857 empty school desks aligned right in front of the Monument. The desks were placed there as part of the College Board’s “Don’t Forget Ed” campaign and represented the 857 high school students that drop out of schools across America every hour of every school day. Row after row of empty desks on the National Mall lawn made for a stunning visual image of just how big the problem is.

Members of the College Board were on hand gathering signatures for a petition to the presidential candidates, which, according to The New York Times stated: “If you want my support, I need to hear more from you about how you plan to fix the problems with education. And not just the same old platitudes. I want to know that you have real, tangible solutions, and that once in office, you’re ready to take serious action. I’ll be watching your acceptance speech at your party’s convention.”

“We’re not criticizing any candidates and we are not advocating a particular policy. We are mobilizing students and others to create a more visible constituency that wants education to be a prominent issue in the election,” said Peter Kauffmann, vice president of communications at the College Board. A poll commissioned by the College Board in April 2012 found that 67 percent of voters in nine key swing states believe education is an “extremely important” issue in the run-up to the general election.

According to the College Board, more than 1.2 million students drop out of school every year, which averages out to 6,000 students every school day and 857 every hour. Recent data show that students in this country rank 25th in math and 21st in science among students from 30 industrialized nations.

On August 15, Don’t Forget Ed will rally thousands of voices via Twitter and Facebook in order to send a powerful message to the candidates. Don’t Forget Ed will continue staging additional events in conjunction with the nominating conventions and leading up to Election Day to generate further support and engagement.

TV movie highlights bullying issue

Field of Vision on NBC at 8/7c, Saturday, June 11

What happens when the star quarterback finds out his teammates are bullying the new kid? Watch Field of Vision this Saturday to find out. The latest made-for-TV family movie from Procter & Gamble and Walmart’s Family Movie Night, Field of Vision, addresses bullying in schools and standing up for what’s right. Faith Ford, Tony Oller, and Joe Adler star.

The producers of Family Movie Night reported that according to a recent survey, nearly three-quarters (74%) of Americans consider bullying harassment a serious problem in their local public schools, and more than 45 percent of students admitted to having been bullied, teased, or taunted at school, as noted by a Josephson Institute of Ethics survey (that’s us!).

Watch the trailer:

Take our bullying survey.

Check out our free bullying resources.

Learn about our anti-bullying workshop.

Update, 6/14: The DVD will be available at Walmart on 8/30/2011. Here’s the link.

Breaking down walls at Hinsdale Central High School

CHARACTER COUNTS! at Hinsdale CentralIn his new book On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character, education expert Samuel Casey Carter examines 12 public and charter schools “where confident children joyfully strive to accomplish worthy goals in concert with their friends.” One thing each school has in common is the focus on creating a culture of character.

Carter specifically applauds Hinsdale Central High School, a CHARACTER COUNTS! school in suburban Chicago. Last week, Carter told the Chicago Sun-Times that the school enjoys “the wonderful outcomes harnessed by an extraordinary school culture committed to student character.”

This isn’t the first time Hinsdale Central’s CC! program has made the news. In 2008, the school was designated a National School of Character by the Character Education Partnership. The award recognized the school for its success in building the character and social/emotional skills of its students and granted it $20,000 to continue the program and train other educators.

What does it mean for Hinsdale to have a culture of character?

Beginning when they arrive for freshman year – and continuing for the next four years, students are trained in Conflict Resolution Skills, Peer Leadership Building, Ethical Thinking, and Internet Safety. This curriculum gives students a solid foundation for effectively responding to conflict, controlling negative impulses, and making ethical decisions.

Throughout the school year, Hinsdale Central hosts several events that help establish a culture of caring. One of these is the annual “3,000 Devils Tolerance Month,” which includes a “Mix It Up Lunch,” in which students are encouraged to sit with someone new, and an “Eliminate Hate” campaign, in which students create videos to combat “hate speech” heard in the halls and cafeteria. Those videos are shown on the monitor by the cafeteria. (Watch a recent video at the bottom of this story.)

Hinsdale Central students organize and host “Walk the Walk for Autism,” which raises student awareness and encourages students to be understanding and caring citizens, and “Leave Your Hate at the Door,” a conference in which different schools present their ideas for building cultural bridges.

There’s also “Break Down the Walls,” an anti-bullying performance created and performed by the 52-student Break Down the Walls club. In addition to performing, club members “step in on their own when they see bullying happening.” This actually happens. When a few Hinsdale Central students sat in on our recent “Bullying Stops Here” webinar, one student said she went over and talked to girls who’d snubbed another girl. She told them it was wrong and got them to change their behavior. Another Break Down the Walls student said she participates in the program because, “once you get to high school, it’s not really cool to be mean anymore. It’s cool to care.”

Other clubs that help create a culture of caring at Hinsdale Central include the Gay/Straight Alliance, Peer Buddies, which joins special ed. and regular ed. students, and Spectrum, which allows autistic students to form friendships with each other and with other students.

Since Hinsdale Central implemented CHARACTER COUNTS! ten years ago, incidents of harassment and intimidation went from 49 in the 1997-98 school year to nine in 2006-07, even as total enrollment increased from 1981 to 2656. Those numbers show just how effective CC! can be in changing the culture of a school.

Watch this video made by Hinsdale Central students:

Anti-Bullying Campaign from Sara Klepacki on Vimeo.

Note to Illinoisans: To recognize the publication of On Purpose, Hinsdale Central Character Counts! will host a  book signing event in the Hinsdale Central Library on December 14, 2010 from 8:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. If you buy a book, it will be signed by all individuals who are quoted within it. In addition, Hinsdale Central Character Counts! will present signed books to the Hinsdale Township High School District 86 Board of Education. This presentation would take place during the January 2011 BoE meeting.

During these events, Hinsdale Central Character Counts! will record video testimonials from students, staff, and others about the value of CC! at Hinsdale Central High School.

The empathy deficit

At the annual meeting for the Association for Psychological Science last month, researchers from the University of Michigan presented their findings that college students today are less empathetic than college students 30 years ago. The steepest decline in empathy occurred in the last nine years.

Why might people be less empathetic than they used to be?

Researcher Sara Konrath told LiveScience, “Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-related information. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research… is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”

Ed O’Brien, another researcher involved in the study, thinks the increase in social media is a factor. On Scientific American’s 60-Second Psych podcast, he said, “It’s harder for today’s college student to empathize with others because so much of their social lives is done through a computer and not through real life interaction.” For example, it’s easier to ignore the problems of a Facebook “friend” than those of a friend who’s standing right in front of you, crying. O’Brien believes the increase in the competitiveness and busyness of our society also might be factors.

In the study, researchers reviewed 72 studies of 14,000 college students from 1979-2009, but LiveScience managing editor Jeanna Bryner points to a Michigan State study of 477,000 high-school seniors, also over 30 years. The authors of this study concluded that students are no more self-centered than their parents were, though “they are less fearful than other generations of social problems such as race relations, hunger, poverty and energy shortage.”

Whether or not we accept Konrath and O’Brien’s conclusions, we can all agree that the world could use more compassion. So how can we raise our empathy levels?

O’Brien suggests spending more time away from our computers, interacting with people in the real world.

We suggest visiting our free Lesson Plan Bank and checking out classroom activities for students of all ages, listed under the Caring pillar.