Saluting the 2012 National Schools of Character (Part 2)

With the new school year upon us, it’s time to check in again with one of the Character Education Partnership’s (CEP) 2012 National Schools of Character (NSOC) award winners. For part two of our three-part series, we’re featuring the North Boulevard Elementary School in the Pequannock Township School District in Pompton Plains, New Jersey. The school’s mission statement is “Educating Every Student, Every Day in Every Way,” and it uses CHARACTER COUNTS! as its key character education initiative. Jerome Cammarata, North Boulevard’s former principal, and its current principal, Theodore Loeffler, took the time to discuss how character education has changed the school’s environment for the better.

CC!: When did you begin your character education initiative?

Mr. Cammarata: Character education has become so imbedded in the culture of North Boulevard School; it is difficult to recall our first steps in our 10-year journey. In the 2001-2002 school year, teachers, parents, and support staff recognized the need to provide some form of values education for our young students. We took notice of the efforts of Dr. William Trusheim, principal of Pequannock Valley Middle School, and his character education team to build a comprehensive Character Education (CE) program and we decided to introduce CHARACTER COUNTS! and its Six Pillars of Character at NBS. This continued through the next few years with a variety of programs and initiatives. These early programs focused on grade level service learning projects that encouraged community outreach. One of these programs, a second grade service learning project, became an annual school-wide event, the NBS Polar Express. The children of Mrs. Leslie Ulrich’s second grade class gave up their holiday grab-bag gifts and donated them to local charities. The program expanded and created a need for a standing Character Education Committee that encouraged similar annual service learning and CE activities. CE at NBS truly took off when the Committee researched the Eleven Principles promoted by the Character Education Partnership. This research helped us develop a comprehensive CE program that addresses each of the Eleven Principles. The rest is history with our recognition as a National School of Character in 2012.

CC!: How has character education changed your school? What has the response been like from your teachers and students?

Mr. Cammarata: The students of NBS “speak” character. The common language of The Six Pillars of Character lessons taught regularly by our related arts staff has become part of our culture. Programs like “Bucket Filling,” “Words of Wisdom,” “Win-Win Conflict Resolution,” anti-bullying lessons, and the Peace Bridge equipped our children with the tools they needed to be good citizens of North Boulevard. These programs have been synthesized into a CE program unique to NBS. The children and the community speak the language and understand the processes. The parents, teachers, and support staff are supportive of this comprehensive approach because they can better focus on learning academic content as daily student-to-student conflicts are reduced.

CC!: What’s been the most challenging aspect of instituting your character education program?

Mr. Cammarata: Change can be difficult at first, but successful change breeds willingness for doubters to take notice. Staff “buy-in” was the most challenging aspect of developing a comprehensive CE program that impacts every school day and much of the social interaction between students, staff and the community. “Where will we find the time to implement the CE program and ensure our students master core academic content?” was a frequent question asked by some teachers. The answer for us was to engage the related arts teachers (art, music, PE and media), parent volunteers, and support staff in the process and help provide the needed time and effort. They supported the efforts of the CE committee and classroom teachers and provided the essential time and effort to ensure a good balance between CE and academic instruction. Related arts teachers taught regular CE lessons freeing grade level teachers to plan for academic game plans and grade level service learning programs that promoted the values of the Six Pillars. One of the most significant changes made in our approach was to involve the students in the decision-making process as much as possible. Student representatives sat on the school CE committee and gave the student body more “voice and choice” in the CE projects and programs. The students’ enthusiasm for programs they helped plan and implement encouraged greater teacher “buy-in” and the NB CE program is now truly a part of our culture. The success we experienced in the classroom and school was recognized with Promising Practice Awards and ultimately a state and national School of Character status. Success bred success and we believe the CE program at NB is sustainable and a permanent part of our school culture.

CC!: How did you go about applying to be a National School of Character?

Mr. Cammarata: We were fortunate to have a fine example of a State School of Character within our school district. Pequannock Valley Middle School’s success inspired key members of our staff to follow their example. That all said, the NB CE Committee began to research the Eleven Principles and investigate the process. The best example of this action was Mrs. Yvette McBain, a first grade teacher at NBS, to develop a primary grade conflict resolution process. She implemented the Peace Bridge and Peace Makers program at NBS in 2008-2009 and then applied for a Promising Practice Recognition. She took the initiative to contact N.J. Public Television and they did a segment on the Peace Bridge program. This success inspired other key members of the CE Committee to use the Eleven Principles to evaluate our programs. The NB CE program was streamlined, organized, and evaluated based on the Eleven Principles. Additional Promising Practice recognitions encouraged us to apply for a State School of Character Recognition. We were so happy to learn that NBS was recognized as Honorable Mention School of Character. Most significantly, key members of the CE Committee used the feedback received from CEP to improve our programs. We applied again in 2011-2012 and were recognized as a State and then National School of Character. We see this as one additional step, albeit a significant one, in our continuing journey in promoting character education for all of our children.

CC!: What qualities do you think helped put your school over the top to win this award? How did you measure the results of the program?  
Mr. Cammarata: I received a telephone call from the NJ sponsoring association for the National CEP and was pleased to hear our second application for the NJ School of Character was reviewed and we were a finalist for the State School of Character Recognition. I broke the good news to our community and CE Committee with feelings of excitement and concern. The excitement was natural because recognition at this level would help validate our decade-long journey in Character Education. My concern was: had we done enough to document the success we experienced as a growing school of character? But I was reassured when we reviewed the data we had collected on our programs. We had conducted surveys of the community on school climate, carefully monitored student achievement, and gathered artifacts of our programs. I approached the final steps in the qualifying process with confidence that our school was one of good character and it was more important to ensure the program was sustainable in the future. The community shared my belief that this was our true goal and that recognition as a National School of Character was secondary to a sustainable program. We are pleased that we have achieved the recognition and a program that will continue for many years to come.

CC!: How do you plan to sustain this success and the program going forward?

Mr. Loeffler: We plan on re-evaluating each of our programs so that we can make sure that they are serving our school community as best as possible. Staff, parent, and student feedback will be crucial. I am committed to working with the other elementary school principals to see that the programs of one school are not kept secret and in isolation. We are going to work towards making these programs part of what each of our schools are doing daily. Our two other elementary schools received promising practices awards. I have also begun conversations with our middle and high school administrators as to how to connect more of these activities throughout the grade levels while making them age appropriate.

To learn more and to apply your school as one of the CEP’s 2013 National Schools of Character, visit here.