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

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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

Featured image provided courtesy of Charles Banke Photography.