From the Director’s Chair: An Oasis of Character in the Desert

San Bernardino is just 60 miles east of Los Angeles, but it seems a world away from Hollywood glamour and glitz.

With a 15% unemployment rate and an average household income of less than $21,000 annually, it’s the poorest city of its population size in California. An estimated 40% of its residents receive public assistance. In 2012, San Bernardino made headlines for being the largest city ever to file for bankruptcy protection. (Detroit superseded it a year later.)

Situated on a parched valley floor, the city feels like an urban desert. But I went there recently and found an oasis at 1482 Enterprise Drive, where multiple buildings line a parking lot and serve as classrooms for the San Bernardino Public Safety Academy, a school for teens who are interested in pursuing careers in firefighting and law enforcement.

Respect-SBPSA_600pxWhen you drive into the city, you see immediate images of the despair and challenges the residents face, but when you drive into the SBPSA school parking lot, you see totally different images. There are signs of hope, pride and commitment everywhere you turn. That, along with the spirit of the students and staff at SBPSA, made me pause and wonder how this “oasis” survives.

The answer was prominently displayed on a row of windows I passed as I approached the main building. Each window had one of the Six Pillars of Character (trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and good citizenship) etched on it, along with key words that describe that Pillar.

It was the first day of the 2014-15 school year, and I arrived to find nearly 400 students from grades 6-12 and a couple dozen faculty and staff who were determined to get the year off to a good start.

SBPSA-Creed_600pxI spent the whole day with groups of students discussing CHARACTER COUNTS! and how they felt about the program and what they planned to do to make their school and community a better place. We talked about the SBPSA “Cadet Creed” and how those words they recite daily blend with the character traits of the Six Pillars.

As its website says, the San Bernardino Public Safety Academy’s “faculty expectations, parent expectations and career expectations [are] built upon character and ethics,” so I was speaking a language they clearly understood.

The school literature states that “the students regularly participate in drill exercises and ceremonies in order to establish and maintain a level of responsibility, pride, and esprit de corps. We provide the building blocks for young men and women who may choose to be police officers, firefighters or any career they decide to pursue after graduation.”

You may be thinking it’s easy to instill character and values in “that type of school,” but you would be forgetting that these are still kids coming from homes in one of the nation’s poorest communities, many for whom English is a second language. Recognizing that fact, the leadership at SBPSA decided to provide CHARACTER COUNTS! training to its full staff and all the students. They also hosted a parent workshop where nearly 100 parents sat in a classroom for a 90-minute presentation on how they will partner with the school and their kids to ensure the Six Pillars are not just taught and followed at school but also at home. These parents are part of the CC! “T.E.A.M.” (Teaching, Enforcing, Advocating and Modeling) approach adopted by the staff at the San Bernardino Public Safety Academy.

parents-SBPSA_600pxYou may also be wondering about how SBPSA could afford such a comprehensive training model and implementation strategy. Would you believe it only cost $50 per student to get the entire staff certified to teach the CC! program plus train the students, parents and in the coming months have two more follow-up trainings?

Every day I talk about our program with educators and administrators from around the nation and the discussion is always centered around two things: how does it work and how much does it cost? We discuss the training, the support materials and other resources available for a school or youth-serving organization to implement our program, along with the cost of these items.

The next time the phone rings and the conversation turns to costs, I am going to ask the person on the other end of the line: Is a program that delivers everything we just talked about worth $50 per student?