Prince Edward County schools focus on new character program

Published 1:14 am Friday, December 1, 2023

Just five minutes. That’s all teachers in Prince Edward County will need to educate public school students on a commonly overlooked topic: character.

“We talked about ways to address post-COVID, post-pandemic behaviors as they were — and are — continuing to escalate,” Prince Edward County school board chair Lucy Carson told her colleagues during a recent meeting. “This was just one spoke of the wheel, and a way we could address it. We’re trying to build a system to support our teachers and our students.”

Those issues include, among other things, absenteeism, and other behavioral issues that have always been around, but became more enhanced after students returned from months of learning remotely.

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The new curriculum — branded as “Character Strong” — is intended to not just develop character among students, but also build better social and emotional environments for students, and cultivate better relationships between teachers, and the young minds being taught. 

‘Character Strong’ in Prince Edward County

It’s geared for students at all levels — from pre-kindergarten to the 12th grade — and focuses on 10 traits educators say will build character: courage, respect, responsibility, kindness, perseverance, empathy, cooperation, creativity, honesty and gratitude. Once it gets going, the program is designed to function under the radar, integrating itself into the existing education model throughout Prince Edward schools.

“When it first starts, it’s going to be a standalone curriculum because they’re going to teach the components of Character Strong,” assistant superintendent Michelle Wallace told school board members. “As they get used to these character traits, that, of course, will weave itself into math, science, social studies.

“They’re just taking a few minutes, very few minutes of the day. We’re talking about a 25-minute lesson over the course of the week.”

Classroom portions of the program are delivered in a number of ways, but primarily through activities. For older students, the lessons are intended to be offered without textbooks or handouts. Instead, students would only need pen and paper with “a strong focus on student voice and choice,” according to the program description.

“It’ll be different based on the level of the school,” Wallace said. “That’s something that we will meet with principals and really decide. I have already talked to other counties and how they do it, and so I have a lot of ideas. And then I can share that with principals.”

A new project, an old concept 

While this particular program may be new to Prince Edward schools, the concept of character education isn’t. A lot of it dates back to 19th century education reformer Horace Mann, who advocated that character development was just as important as academics, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

That approach has been championed at the federal level for the past 30 years, beginning with the Partnerships in Character Education Program in 1994, and later carried on through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Prince Edward schools adopted its own character education program in early 2000, revising it a number of times over the years. Its primary intention is to “foster civic virtues and personal character traits” so that school learning environments can be improved, student achievement promoted, and more civic-minded students are created — all while reducing disciplinary problems. 

Any such program, however, would have to be cooperatively developed with students, parents and the community. And that’s exactly what happened in this particular case, Wallace told the school board.

Breaking down the project 

Wallace formed a committee of educators from all three schools as well as central office staffers last March, who first looked at a number of factors impacting character development at the school, including discipline issues and absenteeism. 

By May, the committee narrowed down its search to two curriculums, which it then provided to both school staffers and parents this past August to review. Afterward, each were surveyed to see which program they liked the best.

In the end, the majority went with Character Strong. Those who reviewed the two programs felt Character Strong “was very organized,” Wallace said. “The lessons seemed more engaging.”

And now that everything is in-place, Wallace believes the school district can start implementing the program almost immediately.

“What we would like to do is look at getting this going in a slow rollout in January,” she said. “The program does allow itself so that our teachers don’t feel that everything’s been thrown on them. And the slow integration is designed to simply change the culture — particularly around these areas.”