By Ainsley Layland
In January, Character.org honored Frank J. Smith School by naming it one of the 2017 NJ Schools of Character.
In order to qualify for this award, applying schools must demonstrate the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education. These principles, established with the foundation of Character.org in 1993, are the cornerstone of Character.org’s philosophy on effective character education.
For the staff and students at Frank J. Smith School this award presents an opportunity to share what they have learned.
“When we were told that we would receive the honor of being a NJ School of Character, I was most happy and excited that we would be able to share all of the good things that we do through this platform,” said Kerry Quinn, principal at Frank J. Smith School since 2008. “The staff at Frank J. Smith School works tirelessly for our kids. Making sure that the kids feel happy and safe at school is more important than anything else. We are all in agreement that if kids aren’t feeling good about school, their minds can’t be fully open to learning. This culture existed long before I arrived, but as a personal priority for me, it was my pleasure to cultivate and support it.”
Each of the 11 principles outlines what Character.org says are “vital aspects of character education initiatives that should not be overlooked in program implementation.” The topics range from parent and community partnerships to curriculum integration to extra-curricular activities and staff development.
Frank J. Smith School has found success by taking an approach that is specific to its school.
“Our character development program is led by our awesome guidance counselor, Mrs. Laura Gorcica and behind her is an entire team of people that make it happen,” Quinn said. “We don’t subscribe to one particular program or curriculum. We brainstorm what works for us and then we do it. Our school boasts two Climate and Culture Teams – one comprised of adults and another of students. Our second grade leaders have become some of the biggest initiators of change and character development in our building.”
According to Quinn, one of the Character.org 11 Principles has played a vital role in integrating the others into the school environment.
“All of the principles are important but I think one of the keys to our success is Principle four – creating a caring community,” said Quinn. “We want our students to really know that there are many people in our school community who care about them. In addition, inclusion of all is a priority for us. To this end, we wanted our students to get to know one another across grade levels so we created a Spirit Team Program. Spirit Teams are adult-led teams with a mix of students from all grades: pre-school, kindergarten, first and second. Teams each have a name of a superhero and the groups of students are smaller so that students can really get to know one another and their team leader in a way that is different than their classroom experience.”
Quinn attributes their success in living the 11 Principles to shared leadership and responsibility.
“A school’s character development can’t be based on some outside force or because I said to do it,” he said. “We talk a lot at Frank J. Smith School about ‘doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.’ We all want our students to do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do.
“This message comes from the strong role models that they have in their teachers,” Quinn said. “The staff at Frank J. Smith School assume leadership roles in all areas and for this reason, the practices that we implement come to life and will do that no matter who leads the school because we all expect it from one another.
Following the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education is not just a program for the benefit of the students, the staff are involved as well.
“Keeping our staff’s character healthy is important to us too, so we have a Frogtastic Fun Committee that keeps our teachers feeling happy and safe. We make it a point to have fun together both in and outside of our school day. We work out together before school on Fitness Fridays and we create little opportunities to just have fun.
The school puts on an annual Leprechaun Hunt and has celebrated its success with after school parties with the purpose of keeping spirits up and motivation high.
“This feeling is contagious and our kids feel it. I know that without a doubt. They know we like to be here and we like one another. You can feel that from the moment you walk into our main office and are greeted by our school secretaries who make you feel like you are in their homes. The expectations that our staff has for one another and for our kids is what lets us achieve the 11 principles.”
Once named a State School of Character, the school maintains that honor for three years. However, once a school has received the award they are then qualified to apply for the honor of becoming a National School of Character.
“We will certainly continue to enhance our current character related initiatives,” Quinn said. “For us, it was never about being recognized as much as it was about constantly improving our school. I am beyond proud of the staff and students at Frank J. Smith School. It’s challenging in today’s world to keep kids motivated to excel in the classroom but high quality teaching that cognitively engages kids almost always keeps their eyes on the prize. My staff strives to help kids see how what they are learning, even as little ones, is related to their lives now and in the future. We have found that giving them lots of pats on the back paired with honest feedback is a recipe for success. Making sure that we provide opportunities to partner with their parents in their schooling sends a powerful message that we are all on the same team and want to see them succeed as learners and as people.”