Your Character Counts: Students, staff discuss impact of character building program

By Briana McGeough 2008

What characteristics do employers look for when hiring someone new? Most want an employee who is responsible, respectful, trustworthy and a good citizen. What kind of person is sought after as the ideal spouse? The American norm is to want a partner who is caring and fair.

As schools nationwide, including Cedar Falls schools, are aiming at a more holistic approach to education, they are beginning to emphasize the importance of relationships and character. The above list of characteristics for a “good” employee and the “perfect” mate are the Six Pillars of Character utilized by the Character Counts! program that the Cedar Falls School District has implemented.

While most agree that the overall goal of Character Counts! is positive and meaningful, there is controversy over whether or not character education is effective. Additionally, many students at the high school are unaware of the Character Counts! program.

The Character Counts! program is a nationwide initiative that is the most implemented approach to character education. It has received the endorsement of politicians as well as the YMCA and the National Education Association.

Although Character Counts! is not the motivation behind homeroom at Cedar Falls High School, it has been incorporated into the curriculum.

“It goes along with the overall goal of homeroom, so we weave it into the homeroom initiative,” CFHS Principal Rich Powers said.

In addition to homeroom, Cedar Falls High School tries to promote character through activities.

“Courage is part of character,” Powers said. “For example having the courage to perform in the musical in front of 500 people is courage.”

Powers said he believes that character development is also the responsibility of students in and out of homeroom.

“To say it should take place in one setting is shortsighted. It is all of our responsibilities to address things when they happen,” Powers said. “As a student, you are able to change others’ minds, speak when you don’t agree and have the courage to share your opinion.”

While Cedar Falls High School has worked to promote Character Counts! in a number of ways, including a pillars of character structure prominently displayed in front of the building, students remain largely unaware of the program.

“Character Counts! is not a secondary schools initiative. Character Counts! is primarily targeted at junior high and elementary students. The pillars are a common set that most students will be aware of, so we make ties into it,” Powers said.

CFHS biology teacher Deb Paulsen agrees that in time high schoolers will accept the program because they were exposed to it as young children.

“We will see the greatest effect of Character Counts! when the elementary students get to the high school,” Paulsen said. “In a few years both students and faculty will see the influence of it.”

The results of a schoolwide survey tend to support the belief that time will help students accept Character Counts! The high school students in different grades appear to be responding differently.

“Students did an evaluation in homeroom. Juniors and sophomores benefit more than seniors do,” CFHS English teacher Diane Flaherty said.

Proponents of Character Counts! believe that not just students’ acceptance but also their confidence in the program will increase in time.

“It’s like any new situation. Trust isn’t developed overnight. It takes time to get comfortable. Current sophomores and juniors will see the greatest growth,” Powers said.

Besides beginning the education earlier, another suggestion by students is to reinvent the way the information is presented.

“I would make Character Counts! more applicable to high schoolers’ everyday lives and less structured,” junior Alana Schneider said.

Like Schneider, many students find the program in its current state ineffective, but a majority believe that it shows promise.

“The idea is good. With a few changes, the Character Counts! message can really get through to kids,” senior Rachel Jensen said. “We need to make it fun and interesting.”

While it is under debate if character can actually be taught, “You can model character and discuss issues, bringing them to the forefront of the minds of adults and students,” Flaherty said.

Many high schoolers do not believe that they are still open to new character education programs by the time they reach high school.

“Since we are teenagers and we don’t listen, it doesn’t impact us. It takes more talking about how it applies to us,” junior Alana Schneider said.

In addition to just modeling character and discussion, Powers said h believes that people can always be educated.

“We all have room to grow and things to learn. None of us is a finished product,” Powers said. “One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Adversity doesn’t build character, it displays it,’ but I do believe that you can develop character.”

The desired affect of Character Counts! is to have a long and lasting impact on students.

“The Pillars of Character is something that you will carry with you your whole life,” Flaherty said.

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