As the new school season approaches, I usually love the exhilarating thrill in the air and feel rejuvenated and energized as we return from our summer vacations. This year however, that excitement is tempered from the weight of the events in Charlottesville and the uncertainty of its lasting impact on our nation.
Our schools play an important role in helping students become conscientious global citizens. We do so not by preaching any political ideology but rather by teaching the basics of civility from pre-K to12th grade as developmentally appropriate.
Earlier this year, Superintendent Thomas Smith and I published an article in a statewide journal about Hopewell’s ongoing efforts within our district and Mercer County to discuss issues of race, gender and income inequality.
Yet as we sought to advance the work by delving into student curriculum and staff development, our Board of Education suggested that those discussions might be premature without first addressing simple foundations in character: honesty, integrity, responsibility, fairness and a measure of basic human kindness.
Character education is hardly a new concept to Hopewell Valley. Each school has embedded careful programming — from the Stars at Stony Brook Elementary to the Pillars at TMS through community service at CHS. Further, those programs have been highly effective. One of my favorite presentations to our Board of Education was Bear Tavern’s STEM class explaining growth mindset benefits and how they valued learning from their mistakes.
That said, for us as a district to have a meaningful discussion on inequality issues, there was a need for a common thread to be sewn throughout the entire schooling experience that could unify a singular message and continuously build on previous lessons.
It was a tall order since we were navigating uncharted territory for a public school.
Recognizing that proper solutions would need to engage a larger, more inclusive audience, Dr. Smith convened a character and cultural competency committee that included parents, teachers, students, Board of Education members and administrators. This committee met for more than 30 hours over the course of last school year and will continue to gather this school year and beyond.
Their end result included a draft “Character Education Framework” of age-appropriate expectations and skills, integrating mindfulness, character, cultural competency, and discipline, to be incorporated into the curriculum and embedded throughout the school life experience over the next several years. The draft framework can be found at hvrsd.org under the District tab.
The work begins by fostering an awareness of how interactions can both positively and negatively affect others.
At the youngest level, actions can be as simple as sharing, naming a feeling, or even learning to apologize for misbehavior. As students get older, feelings can be more complex and topics such as empathy, inclusion, digital citizenship, self-advocacy, and conflict-resolution come into play.
Finally, our goal is for students to positively respond to criticism, engage in civics, perform community service, and proactively advocate for themselves and others.
While that may seem a tall order to put on the shoulders of our students, as with our other initiatives, we believe that engaging in those activities ultimately reduces tension.
The framework employs mindfulness and emotional intelligence techniques. Making healthy choices, learning to properly express feelings, and successfully self-advocating can greatly relieve stress levels.
Further, if done without time management pressures and with a true desire to help, community service, civic engagement, and advocacy can be tremendously rewarding, can contribute to a sense of purpose, and can improve self-esteem.
Let’s face it: sometimes it just feels good to know you have helped. Our teachers and staff know that feeling first hand. That’s why most went into education in the first place. Consequently, our district staff earnestly transferring that knowledge will eventually encourage a culture of “paying it forward.”
Such a lofty objective takes time to accomplish, nevertheless if successful, may arm our students as tomorrow’s leaders to apply the tools necessary to minimize the damage from the types of issues that weigh so heavily on us today. It’s natural to worry about the trials to which our children are subjected; yet it is comforting that our schools have a plan to help students discover their inner strength necessary to overcome and surpass those challenges.
We start our school year with a renewed sense of hope.
Lisa Wolff is president of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education.