Eight years ago, Crestwood Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri, became truly engaged in character education. We were already a pretty good school and doing some character education, but a district decision directed all schools to do more character education following the Caring School Community (CSC) program with its emphasis on autonomy, belonging, and competence. A leadership team of four staff and one parent became excited about the possibilities that an increased focus on character education could bring to our school. Now, eight years later Crestwood has just finished a remarkable year when we were named not only a National School of Character, but a National Blue Ribbon School as well —the only school in the nation to receive both of these prestigious national awards.

How did we do it? In my opinion, it is hard to receive one award without the other. Our improved character paved the way to increased student achievement. As our students excelled in the classroom, they grew in their abilities to highlight their character traits, too. Eight years of increased focus on character education led to eight years in a row on the “Missouri Top Ten” list. In fact, Crestwood is currently ranked #2 out of more than 1,000 elementary schools in Missouri on Schooldigger.com.

What specifically made such a difference? Let my staff tell you.

Autonomy

Kit Norton, our P.E. teacher, said, “Character instruction in my classroom has made a tremendously positive impact on the effectiveness of our entire school climate. Since I see every child in the school, I feel our building has done an excellent job by immersing ourselves into owning the concept that ‘character development comes first before any instructional achievements.’ I believe we are experiencing the results of our character efforts school-wide; empowered students are students that will seek personal inspiration to achieve, especially when they feel authentically safe and cared for in every corner of their school.”

We surveyed our students about autonomy and our students stated that they didn’t feel autonomous….they felt that most decisions were made for them and not by them. So we increased our focus on allowing for student choice and allowing students to make more decisions. We also changed our language to make sure students were aware that they were getting to make their own choices. (Did you notice you got to pick your own book today?)

Currently, we have a Crestwood Service Team of over 50 students who meet on a regular basis to plan different service learning projects. Right now, we are involved in a Haiti Christmas Project to provide needed personal care items to children from Haiti to help them have a better Christmas. The students came up with the idea “on their own,” and our staff is enjoying watching our students see their plans come to fruition. In fact, our staff are bringing in personal care items, too.

Belonging

Ann Haberberger, kindergarten teacher, said, “It is important for all students and staff to practice good character throughout the school day. When we feel respected and cared for, safe and happy, we are able to get down to the business of learning. It is easier to absorb content when we know our basic needs are going to be met. We dare to take risks, give answers, try things we’ve never done before. We have a safe environment here at Crestwood School…we know it’s okay to make mistakes…that’s how we learn. No one laughs at us. We are patient with each other. We encourage each other. We respect our differences.”

Last Thursday, we celebrated all of our new friends at Crestwood at our “New Student Welcome.” All new students came together to enjoy pizza and other treats. We ask our new students every year about what they like most about Crestwood. The number one answer? Students feel welcomed! They love the way that students reach out to them and make them fell welcome and accepted. Students feel a strong sense of belonging because of our wonderful, caring staff and our accepting students. At Crestwood having a safe, comfortable environment allows for all students to feel like they belong.

Competence

Michael Guehring, 5th grade teacher, knows that having students with integrity has impacted our academic achievement. “Character education has impacted learning in many ways, but one important way is through integrity. At Crestwood, students learn that integrity means doing the right thing whether or not someone is watching. This integrity leads to students being honest about completing their own work instead of copying answers from another student. Crestwood students don’t cheat on tests either. This all contributes to achievement because students who do their own work and rely on themselves learn more and achieve more.”

Other teachers have said similar things. For example, when our character ed Buddy Journals got students writing to each other, we saw improvement in their language arts.

Our students are competent! A school does not become a National Blue Ribbon School without having competent students. Lindbergh Superintendent, Jim Simpson, stated that “receiving the Blue Ribbon Award was like winning the Nobel Prize for education. It is the highest honor you can receive.” However, our students are competent because we focus on students “one student at a time.” For every competent student, there is a story or a relationship. One of the keys for students to be successful at school is for them to feel loved or cared about. Each of our students know that at Crestwood their teachers love them – it could be our nurse, our music teacher, a building assistant, a reading teacher. When students feel loved and cared about, it allows them to reach their highest potential. Students at Crestwood are successful because they are loved.

Character.org’s Principle 11 talks about how the “proof is in the data.” Our proof is definitely in our data. Our student achievement scores are outstanding. Over 80% of our students have been proficient in math for eight years in a row. We are the only school (elementary, middle or high school) in Missouri that can make that claim. Eight “Top 10” appearances in a row, a National Blue Ribbon School, a Missouri Gold Star School…twice in a row.

Our proof is in the data. But how did that happen? Because we are a school of character, a Missouri and a National School of Character! Our culture allows for intense learning to take place. Our teachers are free to teach without disruption. Our students are free to learn because they feel safe and loved. Our parents and teachers are free to work together to help all of our students show great character and a high level of achievement. Does character education lead to improved student achievement? Absolutely! Just focus on character and watch your achievement soar to new heights… Crestwood School is the school where the “spirit of learning soars….and character grows!”