NEW ULM - The students who met with me during Character Counts Week Oct. 16-22, to discuss Character Counts at the New Ulm Public High School, were focused, organized, self-possessed, driven.
They felt ownership of the program they came to discuss - coming up with, and implementing, ideas, confidently leading classmates into building a shared framework of ethical values.
The students - including Kate and Mikyla Denney, Chris Huber and Mckenzie Alfred - are members of the Character Counts Executive Council, a core group of about five-seven students who coordinate the program.
Photo courtesy of airline pilot Tim Loose
New Ulm High School students and staff celebrate National Character Counts Week by forming the letters TRRFCC at the high school campus. The acronym represents the six pillars of Character Counts: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. The exclamation mark was formed by faculty and staff. No school funds were used in taking the photo. Tim Loose, who took it, donated his time and flying expenses.
They were joined in the interview by Spanish teacher Colleen Hokenson, who, along with English teacher Karla Hansel, serves as advisor, and High School Principal Mark Bergmann.
Character Counts is the most widely-used character development framework in the nation, explained Mikyla Denney. It has been adopted by more than 900 national organizations, including schools, sports, youth and community organizations. They all agree to universal principles which are essential to success. These principles, called the six "pillars" to character development, are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
'Which of these pillars would anyone object to," asked Denney.
Implementing Character Counts is not a result of a need to change students' character, says Principal Mark Bergmann. It is, rather, more of an effort to identify what good character is and build up a common language and terminology for everyone to apply; to reenforce "what we are already doing."
The program "puts names and words" to practices, unifying classes and their families in the process.
Character Counts uses no school funding. The advisers are not collecting a salary - they are volunteering their time because this is important to them, said Bergmann.
The program was launched as a result of a desire to create a unified network of support for students who are positive role models in the school, said Hokenson.
The effort started about five years ago, with research by faculty, staff and students. They looked at options and visited other schools to see how programs work. Character Counts was chosen in part because of the universality of its values and language.
"It's not about religion - it's about character," noted Hokenson.
"We have always upheld ethical behavior, and we saw this as an opportunity for all students to become leaders in our school," she added.
The program is not a reaction to any negative issues at the school, stressed the participants in the meeting.
Rather, it's about placing positive behaviors in a context that everyone shares and building a common language around them.
All students participate in Character Counts in one way or another, said Kate Denney.
Last year, the first year of full implementation, began with a diverse team of students recommended by teachers and staff. This year, 30 students from grades 7-12 applied and were accepted as student leaders.
The students' mission is to create and maintain a positive environment; foster a sense of belonging; empower students and staff; and make decisions and use language that support the six pillars that form the core of the program.
To achieve their mission, the students are seeking to raise awareness of it, by focusing on a pillar each month. They encourage classroom discussions during the advisee period; place a daily quote in school announcements; and create and exhibit posters throughout the building.
Faculty and support staff have received some training in the program during workshops, adds Hokenson. This year, they are specifically trying to encourage more discussion between students and teachers, ultimately seeking to embed the ideas of the program into the curriculum. In one example of curriculum integration, students in an advanced art class have been engaged in creating a Character Counts mosaic, or mural.
Faculty and staff are eager to support the students. In celebration of National Character Week, many wore red Character Count t-shirts.
The student leaders are sponsoring a number of "campaigns" to encourage a sense of belonging and leadership, added Alfred.
One is a campaign for respectful language; another is making posters to show appreciation for various groups of support staff; yet another was named Acts of Kindness. Following up on program called Rachel's Challenge, the students made a chain documenting random acts of kindness and decorated the gym.
The students are sponsoring what they call a Mix-It-Up Lunch, to show appreciation for others outside their specific circle of friends; they do service to the community during the United Way Day of Caring and started a Character Counts honor roll. A video contest- writing relevant messages on their hands, then taping them and combining the images in a video shown in homerooms - was another idea.
A project everyone is especially proud of was an aerial photo shoot during Homecoming Week. The photo shows the initials for the pillars of Character Counts, with students forming the letters and faculty adding an exclamation mark.
The entire school was involved in the photo. Some 1,000 students lined up in 20 minutes, presenting a unified student body taking pride in what they can accomplish!
No district funds were used for producing the photo - parent volunteer and pilot Tim Loose donated his time and flying expenses to shoot it.
The students have the larger ambition of extending this framework to the community at large.
They would like to see the same language that's being "embedded" in school discourse being adopted by parents, families and the community, inspiring a "community culture of character."
There are more than 150 community collaborations - of local business businesses, school and community working together, said one of the students, Chris Huber. "Would it be possible for everyone to try to adopt this policy for their family members or employees?" he asked.
"We are asking you to partner with us, be aware of what we are doing... Could New Ulm become 'Character City'?," said Huber.