As we draw closer to the Character Education Partnership’s annual conference (Oct. 30 – Nov. 2 in Washington, D.C.), we’re featuring guest posts from educators who represent a CEP-designated National School of Character. Kimmie Etheredge, Principal of Kay Granger Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas, leads off the series by walking us down her school’s path to becoming a National School of Character. (Learn more about the CEP conference and save your spot at www.character.org/2014forum.)
By Kimmie Etheredge
Last spring as we were contemplating our campus theme for 2014-2015, I challenged my leadership team to identify a specific character trait that we wanted to focus on for the upcoming school year. For the past three years, our theme has been “Be a Hero—Do the Right Thing!” and we felt it was time for a change. In fact, we’ve tried to change it the past two years, but students and staff strongly embraced “Do the Right Thing!” and none of the alternatives seemed to get any traction.
This year, we wanted to dig a little deeper and find a theme that would speak to societal issues and resonate with our students now and in the future. I’m happy to report that we found one that is working quite well, and I’ll get to that, but first, a little background.
We opened Kay Granger Elementary in 2007 with 400 “Wranglers” in grades K-5. Because character education was (and still is, of course!) a passion of mine, I planned early to make it the foundation of our school culture. During the hiring process, we asked teachers to discuss ethical issues and we made sure they knew that character and ethics would be a central focus on our campus. This insured strong buy-in from the beginning.
We established a character education committee consisting of grade level representatives, support teachers, administration, a counselor and parents. This group was charged with establishing a culture of character development. They chose to implement CHARACTER COUNTS! because the program’s Six Pillars of Character (trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and good citizenship) were traits they all wanted to instill in their children.
Since then, we’ve embedded the Six Pillars in our student planners, morning announcements, wall art, discipline documentation, Campus Improvement Plan, curriculum, music performances, art displays, field days, campus themes … anywhere and everywhere.
But we knew it was more than talking the talk. We had to walk the walk, so we made a concerted effort to model ethical behavior. As a result, we became the campus of choice for parents searching for a solid character education foundation for their kids. In three years, we had doubled our enrollment. This year, we’re close to 1,000 kids.
In May of 2012, we received the Character Education Partnership’s 2012 State School of Character award. We celebrated again a year later when we learned that we had been selected as one of only two elementary schools in Texas to receive a 2013 National School of Character designation.
In the Fall of 2014, we became a CHARACTER COUNTS! Regional Training Site. This means that CC! workshops and seminars are conducted on our campus so that participants get the chance to see the program’s success in person, and talk with teachers and students about it.
I remember visiting with students in the hall and asking them how they would define our character education program. One fourth-grade boy looked at me and remarked, “I can’t explain it. It’s just who we are, Ms. Etheredge. It’s what we believe in and how we act.” That told me it was so ingrained in who they were, they couldn’t separate it. Good enough for me!
In the spring of 2014, I assigned a campus-wide writing assignment to get a sense of how successful our character development efforts really were. We gave our students the starter “Because I am a Wrangler …” and we were blown away by their responses. (Click the small images below to read some examples.) Teachers reported that this was the easiest writing assignment they had ever given.
Now, back to the school theme that we settled on for this year: GRIT! Such a strong word that connotes moral courage and perseverance — and conjures pictures of John Wayne! And why not? Our school is located in suburban north Fort Worth, Texas, which is “cowtown,” home of the world famous stockyards. And we are the Wranglers!
But more important was the realization that we are seeing more and more students who do not demonstrate the drive to persist. They give up at the first bump in the road. Are they perhaps a product of over-protective parents who rescue them from any harm? Parents who mean well, but do not realize that often failure precludes success? We looked at the concept of “growth mindset” versus “fixed mindset” and studied role models who exhibited the “never give up” mentality. And we decided that was what we wanted for our Wranglers. We ordered “Granger Grit” shirts and began to gear up for our campaign in the Fall of 2014.
And then it happened. Our precious art teacher was diagnosed with breast cancer in June. It was a huge blow to our close-knit community. Rallying around her, we began community drives to assist with medical funds, we set up baby-sitting schedules and prayer chains. It is an aggressive form of cancer, but we soon learned that she was responding to treatment. We were ecstatic!
Then in July, another blow. One of our precious third-grade students was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a very serious bone cancer that has spread to his lungs and internal organs. Again, the community rallied, and the importance of GRIT seemed more appropriate than ever.
Yard signs, T-shirts, caps and bracelets proclaiming “Granger GRIT” and “Love, Faith, and GRIT” are everywhere as we battle together as a family. Many people have shared with me that this school is the hub of our community, and the caring, supportive and nurturing environment we have established has been a real source of strength for these families.
In June of this year, I was honored by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association as the 2014 Texas Distinguished Principal. I’ll have the privilege of representing my state in Washington, D.C., in October at the NAESP Conference.
At our school’s end-of-year awards ceremony, I shared with parents and staff that this was not my award, it was a shared award. This award belongs to a community that is committed to establishing a network of stakeholders dedicated to strong family values and caring relationships. Yes, we have challenges ahead, but we also have character and Granger GRIT!