Statement of Purpose
After working over 28 years as a teacher and administrator in three rural school districts in Central Pennsylvania, I believe that, even in this age of increased academic accountability and emphasis on test scores, schools still have a moral obligation to reach the whole child: Schools need to provide supportive atmospheres that help students to grow academically, of course, but also to grow emotionally, socially, and ethically. Schools must help students to see that they are both unique individuals and also part of a larger community: Schools must help students to learn that they each have unique talents and abilities, and that they each have the responsibility to develop these talents in order to contribute to our world. Schools must create atmospheres to help students understand that they have a responsibility to be their best and give their best both academically and in their interactions with others. Students need an atmosphere in which character, conscience, and achievement are all honored.
Nine years ago Halifax Middle School (a school of 300 students and 27 teachers serving grades 6 – 8) did not have such an atmosphere. Most students did not feel a connection to their school or recognize that they had a responsibility to the school community. Many students were choosing to do what was "cool" rather that to do what was right. We had an environment in which most students did not promote the good, but instead promoted whatever they could "get away with" when an adult was not looking. We had an atmosphere in which good students were afraid to excel and were torn between following their conscience and following the crowd.
Halifax Middle School had a distinct culture and climate; however, as happens in many schools, this atmosphere was created by default rather than by design. Eleven years ago at our middle school we set out to purposefully design a school culture that would promote and reinforce what good parents want for their children: We set out to design a school culture in which students would know that they are supported when they have the courage to act responsibly, to honor the truth, and to follow their conscience to do what they know to be right and good. At Halifax Middle School we set out to create a community that would reach each child at a deeper level: We wanted students to realize that they are each worthy individuals who are gifted with their own unique talents and abilities (no matter their family or home circumstances). We wanted to create a community in which all students realize that they have the power within themselves to choose to do their best, to choose to do what is right, and to choose to use their special talents and abilities to improve themselves, our school, and our world. We accomplished this transformation through a highly organized character education program that we call our Discovery Process. After ten years of our character program, we have seen dramatic results. Students are more willing to accept responsibility for their actions and more willing to hold their peers accountable. Students are more considerate of others; they take responsibility for our school environment; they have a positive rapport with their teachers; and they understand that their effort is the greatest factor affecting their academic achievement. Before our program began, I would spend several hours each day dealing with discipline referrals. Now there are days when no discipline referrals are even sent to my office. However, when student behavior does need to be addressed, I no longer have to start at the beginning with a student to explain why good behavior or moral action is necessary. Through our Discovery Process students and staff have developed a common language about moral actions with understood behavioral expectations. When I must deal with a discipline referral, I can begin by asking students "Is this your best?" To date I have not yet had a student who has not hung his or her head and said, "No, it isn’t!" With students having this understanding, it takes far less time for them to recognize how they could have chosen differently to do what was right or good.Vandalism in our school is almost non-existent. We have had no drug incidents in the middle school during the past eleven years. We have had only two occurrences of students smoking in our middle school building during the past ten years, and none during the past six years. Another area of positive improvement has been the increased rapport between students and staff. Both students and staff are more caring and cooperative with one another. In fact, because our teachers act more as counselors and mentors during their Discovery activities, many students form an extremely close allegiance with their Discovery teachers. Even substitute teachers have told me that they feel a positive atmosphere in our school with students working more cooperatively and taking more responsibility for their actions. Parents also recognize the positive change in our school community. One parent stated the following: "My daughter commented that the students are kinder to each other. They think of other’s feelings first (or how they would feel if they were in the student’s situation) before they say or do something to another person. They think before they act, and think of the consequences before doing or saying something." With the changed ethos in our middle school, there is also evidence that student achievement has improved as students have internalized the school-wide expectation that each of us is responsible to give our best effort. More students are achieving honor roll recognition, and student scores are improving on the state-mandated PSSA tests of writing, reading, and mathematics. In fact, in 2001 the Halifax Middle School was awarded a Pennsylvania School Incentive Achievement Award for continually improving test scores in reading and math, and during each of the past four years that the Pennsylvania Department of Education has been using student achievement data to determine if a school is attaining Adequate Yearly Progress, our school has achieved that distinction. As a result of the success of Halifax Middle School’s improved school ethos, the Character Education Partnership of Washington, D.C. recognized our school in 2001as a National School of Character. Since that time I have had the privilege to present our character program to groups across the country, and my hope is that more and more schools will come to see the transforming benefits of a school-wide character education process.Robert Hassinger