ELEVATE: Oklahoma schools increasingly embrace character education

Hilldale Middle School in Muskogee receives national recognition from the Washington D.C.-based Character.org.Hilldale Middle School in Muskogee is one of four Oklahoma schools to receive national recognition from the Washington D.C.-based Character.org.

Madison Tomlinson was not surprised several years ago when Muskogee Public Schools officials asked him to lead the district’s initiative in alcohol and drug abuse prevention. He had experience heading up such efforts when he was a biology teacher at Muskogee High School. Having made the leap from the classroom to district administration, Tomlinson was willing to again take up the cause of fighting substance abuse — but with the caveat that “it will be under the character education umbrella.”

It was time, he said, for educators to take a broader view of the issues that stoked substance abuse.

“We determined that we needed to look at our school culture based on the lens of character development,” said Tomlinson, director of character education for Muskogee Public Schools.

Character education works to develop the sort of core values — integrity, honesty, compassion and grit — that transcend the classroom to help build happy, productive lives. In 2005, Oklahoma took a significant step forward in character education with House Bill 1704. That measure authorized the state’s school districts to establish character education for K-12 and provided an initial grant for character education.


Muskogee Public Schools banquetEach year the Muskogee school district holds a banquet celebrating its character education efforts.

Among the biggest cheerleaders of character education is the Oklahoma State Department of Education. OSDE staff works to provide resources and assistances to districts pursuing character education.

“More and more schools across Oklahoma are recognizing the meaningful and enduring benefits of character education,” said Sonia Johnson, OSDE’s director of 21st Century Community Learning Centers. “It is exciting to see interest in it spread, particularly during a time in which we see young people dealing with revolutionary social challenges — from texting to Facebook and Twitter — that previous generations couldn’t have imagined.”

Under Tomlinson’s leadership, Muskogee High School was designated a State School of Character (SSOC) by the Character Education Partnership, now named Character.org. Muskogee currently boasts two State Schools of Character: Sadler Arts Academy and Rougher Alternative Academy. Hilldale Middle School, located in Muskogee but part of Hilldale Public Schools, is also a SSOC.

Tomlinson moved quickly to transform the culture of schools in the district. “Character clubs” sprang up in the elementary schools, while “character camps” over the summer helped carry on the importance of character education.

Tomlinson recalled getting particularly inspired at a 2009 character education forum in Washington, D.C.

“They were talking about character becoming the foundational part of who you are and what you’re doing, and developing core values that would identify who you were as a school and a district,” he said. “Even though we’d done things with character clubs in schools, it had not been embedded in our culture as a whole.”


Muskogee Public Schools hold character camps each summer

Experts say the most effective character education is integrated into a curriculum. By way of example, Tomlinson points to high school instruction about the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. That invariably leads to discussion about determination, resilience and faith — character traits that were critical in Oklahoma’s eventual healing.

Similarly, Muskogee students read about the Holocaust, which spurs an array of worthwhile topics. “Why were the concentration camps detrimental to mankind? What human virtues existed in those individuals who were survivors?” Tomlinson said. “You build those things into the curriculum.”

Muskogee schools’ comprehensive approach to character education has had positive results. Tomlinson said test scores are up and attendance figures have improved. Disciplinary issues have declined.

In the coming year more Oklahoma schools are certain to be joining Muskogee in the ranks of State Schools of Character, a distinction that denotes a high standard of excellence in character education. To receive SSOC status, a school is subjected to a rigorous screening process. These schools, in turn, serve as models for others.

A few years ago, Pryor Public Schools turned to character education to counter a growing sense of apathy among its student population. District officials turned to “The Leader in Me” program and an accompanying book, Stephen R. Covey’s The Leader in Me: How Schools and Parents Around the World Are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time, to transform the culture in Pryor schools.


L.O.F.T. projectPryor’s first L.O.F.T. project involved middle school students working with the Pryor Main Street Program to clean up downtown Pryor.

Under “Leader in Me,” elementary school students set academic and personal goals for themselves. They chart their progress in a notebook and discuss it at parent-teacher conferences.

“We want kids to be responsible,” said Pryor superintendent Don Raleigh. “Every chance we can, we want to put students in a position where they have to be out front.”

Each Pryor school boasts a Lighthouse team, comprised of teachers and students, to develop and implement character education. A districtwide mentoring program pairs older students with younger kids to interact and promote strong character traits. On “Walking Wednesdays,” high school student leaders walk to school with elementary schoolchildren.

Investing in the community is central to Leaders of Future Tigers, or L.O.F.T., in which fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students work with high school leaders for activities such as visiting nursing homes, sweeping sidewalks and picking up trash.

Raleigh said the initiatives have had a positive impact. Pryor High School is a 2014 honorary State School of Character. The focus on character education has been well-received by teachers, parents and students alike.

“They realize how important character and morals are,” said Raleigh. “This is not a one-day-snap-your-fingers sort of thing. This takes place over time.”


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Last updated on August 5, 2015