by Becky Sipos
As we wrap up February’s focus on Principle 4: Creating a caring community, I thought it would be nice to look at a case study, one school that emphasizes caring in everything it does. Although all of our Schools of Character create caring communities, I chose a school that was founded on the very concept of caring: Sadler Arts Academy in Oklahoma, a 2014 National School of Character.
The school is a real example of goodness coming out of bad. In 1996, Sadler Elementary School had the unfortunate distinction of the worst test scores in Muskogee. The community also knew the school’s students as the rowdiest and rudest kids in town.” Rather than struggle to fix the mess, the school closed and reopened as Sadler Arts Academy.
When Ronia Davison was hired as principal of the new school, she was committed to leading a large scale cultural shift. She ignored advice from those who told her she would have to be really tough to be successful. Instead, the school decided to focus its efforts on what students may not have enough of - love. Their vision was “Be kind, tenderhearted and have a forgiving spirit. That's who we are.”
Core Values Shape School Culture
The faculty created a touchstone: “The Art of Caring” that upholds the belief that education has two intertwined purposes: the development of critical intelligence and the nurturance of the human capacity to care.
The new Sadler Arts Academy has four core beliefs:
The arts are intellectual disciplines of substance deserving center stage in the classroom;
All students are gifted and talented;
An inclusion environment is best;
All should be kind to each other, tenderhearted, and forgiving.
Principal Ronia Davison said, “As a result of our touchstone, Sadler logged the biggest test score gain in the state its first year and continues to do so. Sadler has been a success story in every way. Our students are engaged in service learning, use good character and have few incidences of bullying and our attendance rate is the highest in the district.”
The link between kindness and academic improvement was quite clear. Once the teachers had created an environment where students felt accepted, attendance improved dramatically. Ronia says, “Never underestimate the power of a safe learning environment.”
Parents also began to feel the effects of Sadler’s emphasis on kindness. They see the school as a safe place, rather than an authority that only calls when something is wrong. Sadler consistently encourages parent engagement through events like their recent, “Share the Warmth: Parent Literacy Night” which included literacy activities, crafts and a service learning project.
Weaving Kindness into Every Aspect of School Life
The faculty engage with parents and students so effectively because they devote time to work collaboratively on weaving kindness into every aspect of school life. Ronia says that the National Forum on Character Education played a big role in inspiring the teachers to strengthen their already caring school community. They were inspired by Barbara Gruener’s presentation and her use of the concept of a “helper’s high.” Ronia agrees kindness is truly contagious. Sadler is always working to strengthen its character education initiatives and the teachers are part of a thriving professional learning community, where they share ideas and new ways to integrate kindness into their lessons and activities. But students also take the lead in spreading kindness.
Building Students’ Capacity to Care through Service Learning
Students have become inspired by service learning projects and often find ways to make them even more meaningful. To give just one example, the school decided to adopt a nursing home. It began as a one-day nice example of community service for National Make a Difference Day, but as students realized they didn’t just want to make a difference on one day, they decided to adopt for the whole year. And that project has now lasted for more than 15 years.
The students plan the agenda for each visit, organize materials, prepare refreshments, assist those in wheelchairs/walkers and clean up. The children read books, play educational games, put together puzzles, perform programs and spend hours simply visiting. Many parents have commented on how seeing the impact of volunteering on their children has made them revisit the importance of volunteering for themselves.
Students take time to reflect on their volunteerism in both written form and group discussion. This reflection helps them realize the difference they make and connect their service to personal relationships by taking the focus off of self and looking for ways to resolve conflict and have integrity in academic endeavors. Students not only “do,” but also reflect and discuss the positive impact of their actions - how what they do makes a difference in the life of an elderly person; how they can always make a difference every single day!
Advice from Sadler Arts
Principal Davison gives this advice: “Character education should be a foundational instructional component. Faculty members must model the very behaviors they expect from their students. Students must understand their choices impact their every aspect of their lives. Students must be given opportunities to engage in service learning projects and learn to think outside of themselves. Students must be provided opportunities to develop their leadership capacities and serve in crucial roles of character development within the school.”