By William Trusheim and Eileen Dachnowicz
“What kind of magic is going on in New Jersey in character education?” Folks in the other states yearn to know our secret because the Garden State leads all the other states in producing the largest number of National Schools of Character for the fourth consecutive year. When Character.org, the national advocate for character education, announced the names of the 84 schools and seven districts to be so honored across the nation in 2020, New Jersey, with 31 schools and four districts, was clearly at the head of the class. (For a complete list of 2020 New Jersey and National Schools/Districts of Character visit njasecd.org/nj-schools-of-character/2020-soc.)
“It’s not magic,” says Elizabeth McLaughlin, an English teacher at Elizabeth’s Juan Pablo Duarte – José Julian Marti School 28, a school that is being recognized as a National School of Character for the second time. “It’s the result of teamwork, a dedication to our students’ well-being, and a consistent need to create a culture of caring that enables students and staff to do their best.”
And McLaughlin should know, because she has witnessed the transformation of School 28 over seven years. Character education has been the key to its remarkable change. Once a school beset with fights and a negative climate and a reputation for low achievement, School 28 is now a happy place where students have made great progress academically, personally and socially.
“Just look at our low teacher turnover rate to see how much we enjoy teaching here,” McLaughlin says. “It went from ‘What did you do to be assigned there?’ to ‘How can we work there?’”
Teachers and educational support professionals (ESPs) in other Schools of Character attest that the emphasis on social-emotional and character education has made them better teachers.
“This school challenges me to be the best quality teacher that I can be,” Patty Swick, a teacher at Elizabeth’s William F. Halloran, reports. “I am not only able to be an educator but a role model for my students and create positive relations with them.”
Mary Reinhold and Laurie Anne Coletti, the coordinators for the New Jersey Schools of Character, agree that there is no set pattern for this year’s honorees. Reinhold points out they represent a cross-section of all grade levels, demographics, school types and geographical locations. Coletti adds that this year’s roster includes four districts, seven high schools, three middle schools, 17 elementary schools, one kindergarten, one preschool, one charter school, and one Catholic school. “We call that a perfectly diverse group of schools.”
What is it that makes for a school of character? Across this year’s awardees, and true of every school named in the past, you can see:
Not surprisingly, these schools have registered significant academic improvement and a decrease in disciplinary and harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) incidents.
Leslie Finke, a parent at Macopin Middle School in West Milford, another school that has been recertified as a National School of Character, sums up the school’s special flavor: “As a parent, the best part of Macopin is the way that all staff encourage a ‘family’ atmosphere. I always knew that my kids were in an environment where they were not only physically safe, but ‘safe’ to be themselves, express differences, accept challenges, make mistakes.”
No one is marginalized in these Schools of Character. Character education is not a “top down” frill, but a true way of life that embraces all—administrators; teaching and support staff; custodial and cafeteria workers; bus drivers, students of all races, ethnicities, and abilities; parents; and community members.
“The entire staff at Grice thrives to support character education by being a consistent positive presence in the lives of our students,” Melissa Hooper, an ESP at Grice Middle School in Hamilton, notes. “We recognize every child has a story, and we utilize resources throughout our generous community to provide various supports to our students. As a school family, we lead our students by example.”
Old Bridge Township Public Schools, a highly diverse district that was first recognized as a National District of Character in 2015, can well serve as a model of effective character education because all 15 of its schools have been named both State and National Schools of Character. Kim Castagne, its Conservation and Revenue coordinator, praises the district’s unified vision: “I work with all departments on various projects. There’s one clear vision in our district: work as a team for students.”
Brianna, a 2020 graduate of Old Bridge High School, in reflecting on her four years at such a diverse high school, comments,” I have always felt loved, I have always felt protected, and I have always felt like my voice matters.” She concludes that her school’s emphasis on including all should be a model for all schools, all nations: “Old Bridge is my hope for the rest of the world.”
The core organization in the state that guides schools and districts on their character journey is the New Jersey Alliance for Social, Emotional, and Character Development (NJASECD), often referred to as the Alliance. As the state sponsor for the New Jersey Schools of Character, it administers the program, scores all applications, provides feedback to all applicants and designates and honors the New Jersey Schools of Character.
The highlight of its work occurs every May at its annual Recognition Ceremony and Conference at Rider University, a character education love fest that celebrates its Schools of Character and provides a host of breakout sessions to help educators learn new practices and refine old ones. (This year’s conference was canceled due to the COVID-19 Pandemic).
“The Rider conference is amazing,” says Suli Jimenez, the principal of Elizabeth’s John E. Dwyer Technology Academy and past principal of School 28. “There’s something for everyone here.” Jimenez draws attention to the other services of the alliance, particularly the help with the application given at its three Regional Networking Centers (RNC) that enable schools to work with representatives of National Schools of Character closer to home. Last year, the John Dwyer Academy participated in an ASCENT grant from the Porticus Foundation under the auspices of NJASECD. With North Plainfield High School as a mentor, the Dwyer team improved its own character program and developed a much-needed student mentoring program.
The first step in becoming a School of Character is understanding and implementing the 11 Principles of Character Education.
“Based on decades of research on effective schools, the 11 Principles serve as guideposts for schools to plan, implement, assess and sustain their comprehensive character development initiative,” according to Character.org. Not only does it serve as a guide in your journey, but also it serves as the criterion in judging the application. The Character.org website provides details on the process as well as the application itself. (Visit character.org/schools-of-character.)
A school/district must first become a State School/District of Character; once it has attained that status, it then has the option of applying for national certification for an additional fee. As part of the national process, a site visit by a trained national evaluator comes next. The evaluator’s job is to see how the school/district has successfully addressed the 11 Principles in its culture, classes, school policies, curriculum, service learning, parent-community relationships and assessments. The application consists mainly of 11 narratives, one for each principle with accompanying evidence. Additional information on demographics, assessments, stakeholders’ testimonials rounds out the application.
If the application process seems overwhelming, help is readily available. NJASECD’s Rider conference features a “Tips on Applying” session, and each of the Regional Networking Centers holds a technical assistance session where you can talk with a past National School of Character educator. Teachers can email the coordinator of the RNC nearest them. The RNCs are:
Contact Information Is available on the NJASECD website at njasecd.org/regional-networking-centers. Schools that don’t make the cut the first time are designated as “Emerging Schools” or “Honorable Mention” and can use their feedback and uncover ways to address their areas of growth. The Schools of Character program is meant to be a continuous improvement process and schools receive support from NJASECD throughout their character journey.
Certainly, 2020 has been a year of great national turmoil and unrest. It’s important to help young people cope with this changing world and to develop values that will sustain them. Araceli, a fifth grader at Catherine A. Dwyer School, expresses the meaning of Rockaway Township’s core values—H.E.A.R.T.: Honesty, Empathy, Acceptance, Respect, Trust—that the district adopted in response to a tragedy.
“Sometimes heart is a word we breeze over,” Araceli says. “But it is much more to me and the Dwyer family than just a motto. H.E.A.R.T reminds us of what really matters in this world, and it helps us understand how we treat others. The Dwyer family is the heart at our school. Whether it is a friend helping another in need to having the courage to speak up for what we think is right. We don’t tell people what heart is, we show them what heart is.”
For ways to improve character-building, check out njasecd.org for resources. Also, if you’re not ready to apply for a School of Character yet, applying for a Promising Practice may be the way to go. Go to character.org/promising-practices for more information. More SECD lesson plans such as the one found in the sidebar are available on njasecd.org.
The ASCENT Project brought together nine pairs of schools from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. One member of each pair was a National School of Character and their partner school was aspiring to become a National School of Character. The project was funded by the Porticus Foundation allowing for the schools to meet regularly and participate in an opening Orientation Session and a Final Showcase.
Schools jointly developed SMART goals that guided their work. SMART is an acronym for goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. This yearlong program resulted in two partner schools being named Schools of Character and one being named and Honorable Mention School. In 2020, John Dwyer, the 2019 Honorable Mention School, became a State and National School of Character. Another school, Joseph H. Brensinger School 17 in Jersey City, became a 2020 New Jersey School of Character. Seven National Promising Practices were recognized from the schools participating in the project.
Read more about the ASCENT Project at njasecd.org/ascent.
Title: “Bullied, A Case that Made History”
Students will be able to:
Small Group Discussion (15-20 mins): Students will be placed into three small groups—each group will be given a category and questions to discuss about the video:
After discussion, students come back together and share with the whole class. Other groups can share their ideas and views on the different topics after hearing that original group discussion.
You could turn the discussion portion into a gallery walk.
The video kit for this lesson plan is available for purchase from Teaching Tolerance at bit.ly/ttbullylesson.
Please note: All photos and quotes have been taken from the School of Character applications submitted to Character.org. Permission was granted for use of this material.
Dr. William H. Trusheim is the president of the New Jersey Alliance for Social, Emotional, and Character Development (NJASECD) and is a former educator with 42 years of service in New Jersey schools. He has served as a teacher, administrator, principal and superintendent. Since his retirement in 2012 as superintendent of the Pequannock Township Public Schools, he has worked with a variety of state and national organizations to promote character education, social-emotional learning, and a positive school culture and climate in schools in New Jersey and across the country.
Eileen Dachnowicz, a former Honors English teacher and administrator in Cranford, has been involved in the Character Education Movement since 2004 when Cranford High School was the first public school in New Jersey to be named a National School of Character. She has served as a writer, trainer, evaluator, and national site visitor for Character.org. She is also a trustee of NJASECD and has served as New Jersey’s Schools of Character Coordinator. Her work with schools around New Jersey is a significant reason for New Jersey’s leadership in the Schools of Character Program.