How Orono School District Became a National District of Character

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. In today’s post, we look at the public school district of Orono, Minnesota, which was one of three districts in the country to receive CEP’s National District of Character last year. This post is adapted from an article the district sent to parents after it received the CEP honor.

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  • Reduce discipline referrals and suspensions by two-thirds?
  • Lower the dropout rate to zero?
  • Empower students to prevent bullying?
  • Provide a rallying point for the community?

Impossible? Not in Orono, Minnesota, where a comprehensive character education program is proactively solving many of the toughest problems that schools face today. While disruptive behavior, hazing and bullying in school are all over the news, the Orono district captured headlines by distinguishing itself as one of only three National Districts of Character in the country. The Washington, D.C.-based Character Education Partnership (CEP) bestowed the honor on the district last year.

“There is no honor more important to this district,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Orcutt. “Now, more than ever, the future of our children depends upon strength of character. Orono has long been recognized for its academic rigor. We have worked hard to purposely build this program to complete the package of success for our graduates.”

Orono-Singing-parade-six-pillarsFor students attending Orono Schools, character education has provided them an edge in the competitive world of college admissions. In fact, admissions representatives at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania told Orono High School counselors that the leadership and service-learning opportunities provided through the school’s character education program will give its graduates a leg up in the admissions process.

A long-term commitment to character

Orono has been involved in character education for many years. Beginning in the 2006-07 school year, however, the district got a significant boost from the Minnesota Department of Education. A grant from the department provided funding for staff development, consulting services and materials to create a comprehensive framework for character education.

District administrators say character education has become part of the district’s DNA and goes beyond singular events like food drives or awareness initiatives like posters in hallways (though both of those are part of Orono’s program).

The program is in every grade level (pre-K through 12th grade). Character education is integrated into both the daily operation of the district and curriculum. At the elementary level, for example, students who are sent to the principal’s office for discipline have to identify which Pillar of Character he/she violated. In high school literature and social studies classes, discussions of ethical behavior augment the history lesson or book report. At the district level, administrators and elected officials have undergone Josephson Institute’s “Living Up to the Public Trust” training and coaches have attended the Institute’s “Pursuing Victory With Honor” workshops on building character through sports.

National recognition

CEP has established 11 principles that define an exemplary character education program. Orono met the standards in all 11, but was noted as exceptional in seven of them. “This means that they have a very intentional, comprehensive approach with excellent leadership at the top, community involvement and use of data,” said Lara Maupin, CEP’s former National Schools of Character director.

Orono-food-drive-t-shirtsApplying for the national award required a lengthy and detailed process in order to document the district’s efforts. When Orono was designated as a finalist for the national award last March, CEP sent an evaluator to the district. Dr. David Wangaard, director of The School for Ethical Education in Milford, Connecticut, visited in April. He spent two days interviewing more than 50 students, principals, teachers and parents, while also observing each of the district’s schools “in action.”

“You have a jewel of a district there,” Dr. David Wangaard told a local newspaper reporter.

“One of the things I would say is noteworthy,” he added, “is the steady leadership demonstrated by the administration and school board. That was quite remarkable and their commitment to the process seemed to be all together authentic and genuine.”

And Wangaard gave big kudos to students. “The kids actually get it. You can go to a lot of school districts and the kids wouldn’t have a clue as to district goals,” he said. “One of the teachers made the comment, ‘This isn’t a canned program. We don’t have a binder, but this is something that we do in our class every day.’ That was the kind of attitude, the authenticity of it, that was really quite refreshing to see.”

Students deserve much of the credit for the program’s success. This past year, Orono High School’s CHARACTER COUNTS! leadership launched “Charlotte’s Challenge: 30 Days of Kindness.” The initiative honored Charlotte Bacon, who was one of the 20 students at Sandy Hook Elementary who died tragically December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut. Her mother, JoAnn (Hagen) Bacon, graduated from Orono High in 1985. The project gained such momentum that it continued past the 30 days and also spread to the middle school.

“Students set the tone for kindness,” said Director of Special Services Kristi Flesher, who heads the district’s character education program. “They talk eloquently about the importance of how they treat each other. That is our very proactive and very effective anti-bullying campaign.”

Wangaard also said it struck him when parents got emotional talking about how thankful they were for what their children get out of Orono schools.

While there is no state funding for proactive character education programs, the Orono Schools community believes so strongly in the program that its foundation has stepped up to help the district continue and expand the program.

Orono accepted its award during the National Forum on Character Education in Washington, D.C. in late October. “When you see delegations representing nations throughout the world at the forum, you realize how important character education is to our nation, but also on a global basis,” Orcutt noted.

Orono has been named a regional training center for the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute for Ethics (Character Counts!). By doing so, Orono will be able to share its success story and strategies with other districts throughout the Midwest.

Read more about the Orono district’s character education program here.