Thesecond meeting of the Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education of the Interim Joint Committee on Education was held on Monday, August 11, 2008, at 10:00 AM, in Room 129 of the Capitol Annex. Senator Vernie McGaha, Presiding Co-Chair, called the meeting to order, and the secretary called the roll.
Members:Senator Vernie McGaha, Co-Chair; Representative Ted Edmonds, Co-Chair; Senators Walter Blevins Jr., Brett Guthrie, and Jack Westwood; Representatives Larry Belcher, Hubert Collins, Jeff Greer, Rick G. Nelson, Marie Rader, Alecia Webb-Edgington, and Ron Weston.
Guests: Tim Eaton, Superintendent, Pulaski County School District; Sonya Wilds, Director of Student Services, Pulaski County School District; Mark Kopp, Kentucky Department of Education; Wayne Young, Kentucky Association of School Administrators; and Scott Douglas, Kentucky Association of School Superintendents.
LRC Staff: Janet Stevens, Sandy Deaton, and Janet Oliver.
Senator McGaha said the focus of this meeting is the important topic of character education and he asked Superintendent Tim Eaton, Pulaski County Schools, and Ms. Sonya Wilds, Director of Student Services, Pulaski County Schools, to give their presentation regarding the character education program in Pulaski County. Senator McGaha said Mr. Eaton describes the program not as an “add-on” or something extra “on the plate” but that it is the “plate.” A handout was provided to the committee members relating to the program.
Mr. Eaton said that Ms. Wilds pioneered the character education program in Pulaski County, which started approximately ten years ago. He said that Pulaski County is the 14th largest school district in the state with approximately 8,400 students; it is a growth district; approximately 64% of the students participate in free and reduced lunch; and the district’s current academic index is 84.6, although they are striving to improve that index. He related that one of the large high schools in the district did achieve Average Yearly Progress (AYP) this past year under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Ms. Wilds said that the district defines character as the ethical qualities a person displays when reasoning, making judgments, reacting to situations, and overall behavior. She said character education then simply becomes a deliberate activity or programming organized to develop ethical qualities in the students. Ms. Wilds said there are other programs, such as violence prevention and drug education, funded with Title IV monies, which deal with single domains, such as emotional issues, whereas character education is much broader and more general and is intended to develop good qualities in students that will carry forward into adulthood.
Ms. Wilds said that Pulaski County chose to structure its character education program to allow one of twelve different qualities to be the focus each month. She said character education is centered on three areas of behavior: interpersonal, intrapersonal, and civic behavior, which will help students to more effectively deal with personal issues, with other people, and in their community as a whole. She gave examples of three words that encompass those behaviors: responsibility, respect, and loyalty or patriotism, although other synonymous words could be used as long as the focus remains on the three primary areas. Ms. Wilds said that although the school district’s primary focus is academics, it would be naïve to think that academics alone would ensure student success unless students can manage their emotions and behave appropriately, not only in the school but also in the community environment.
Mr. Eaton said that many communities struggle with the issue of separation of church and state, but the character education program in Pulaski County has been largely successful because of the input provided by faith organizations. He said the district conducts annual meetings with representatives from various churches to keep them up-to-date on school activities and those local churches and other civic groups have provided after school programs for students needing extra attention, when grief counseling is needed, and to sponsor events to recognize students and adults who have exemplified outstanding character.
Ms. Wilds said the district has personnel who oversee the program and that the Board of Education is also committed to the program. She said the district also has an initiative called the “Work Ethic Seal” available to junior and senior students. She explained that students who successfully meet certain criteria relating to attendance, discipline, school and community activities, participation in workshops, etc., receive the “Work Ethic Seal” on their transcripts and local businesses know that the seal implies the student has exhibited qualities that will translate to a good employee and a good work ethic. Ms. Wilds said the district also has a community council for character comprised of representatives from various segments of the community and that a monthly meeting is held to discuss school and community issues. She said each school also has its own unique program in addition to the district wide programs.
Senator McGaha briefly interrupted the presentation to obtain approval of the minutes while a quorum of subcommittee members was in attendance. Upon motion by Representative Collins, seconded by Representative Edmonds, the minutes of the July 7, 2008, meeting was approved by voice vote.
Ms. Wilds said that the district provides resources and ideas regarding the word of the month in monthly meetings with each school’s character coach and then the coach helps the teachers implement unique training, such as individual recognitions, service projects, selected reading or writing assignments, and various other methods to achieve the training related to the word. Ms. Wilds said the program is not designed as an add-on but is to be integrated into daily classroom activities. She gave as an example that during a discussion of Abraham Lincoln, the importance of his character traits, such as perseverance, could be discussed, and that September’s word is loyalty as part of patriotism which can be discussed in recognition of 9-11 events.
Ms. Wilds said her personal dream would be to link character education to core content which could then be applicable and replicable throughout the state and that it could be done in a way that it would flow naturally in daily conversations and assignments.
Mr. Eaton said that the Pulaski County Board of Education recognizes a student and adult each month who has exemplified the word of month. Nominations are submitted by each school and a diverse committee consisting of the sheriff, county judge-executive, faith community representatives, the local press, and others select each month’s recipient, who is then recognized and given a token of appreciation.
Senator Westwood asked how twelve words are incorporated into a school calendar not necessarily covering a twelve-month period. Ms. Wilds said that Pulaski County has many summer programs throughout the school break and the same twelve words have been used throughout the program’s ten year existence. Senator Westwood asked for further information on how character education could be incorporated into the core content. He asked if it is the recommendation that some character questions be included on the assessments. Ms. Wilds said that it has always been her hope that character words could be incorporated in some manner, such as writing prompts, but that she believes children do understand and display positive character qualities without necessarily being assessed. Senator Westwood asked if teachers may decide about integrating character education and Ms. Wilds responded that was correct. Senator Westwood asked if the teachers have been receptive to the concept in Pulaski County. Ms. Wilds said they buy into the concept as long as they are provided the tools, resources, and the knowledge of how character qualities can be incorporated into the core content, especially in areas of critical and higher order thinking, problem solving and decision-making.
Representative Webb-Edgington asked if a baseline study has been conducted to show the impact of the education from its onset to present. Ms. Wilds said that they have conducted various measured studies on different types of behaviors as well as cultural and climate-type surveys. She said the district has seen vast improvement in non-academic areas in the last six years, which is a result of a combination of character education and other support programs initiated in the district. Representative Webb-Edgington asked if there was feedback from the teachers about this program and Ms. Wilds said that no district-wide surveys have been conducted.
Senator McGaha asked which twelve words are used by Pulaski County. Ms. Wilds said the intrapersonal words reflecting an individual’s thoughts, attitudes and behaviors in a wide range of situations are responsibility, courage, perseverance, optimism, honesty, initiative, contemplation and adaptability. The interpersonal words focusing on attitudes, thoughts and behaviors during interaction with other people are respect, caring, and trustworthiness; and, then loyalty is used in connection with attitude toward community and nation.
Senator McGaha related that a family member involved with the Workforce Investment Act has shared with him the significance to local businesses of the Work Ethic Seal component of character education. He said that ethical and positive character traits should result in improvement in a district’s disciplinary actions. Ms. Wilds said that data collected over the last six years has definitely shown tremendous decline in disciplinary actions, such as drug use, episodes of fighting, suspensions, expulsions and other negative behavior, which is a direct result of character education and other support programs.
Mr. Eaton said that success of the program depends on community support and the support of educators and the key to educator support is providing them the tools and resources necessary to provide the instruction. Ms. Wilds added that the program is also a method to recognize good, solid students who may not be star athletes or scholars but simply portray good behavior and do the right things.
Representative Rader related that one of the local churches in her district has initiated a program called “Beyond These Walls” to provide character role models and assistance to children living in public housing and poverty areas. She said she would like to take back some of the ideas presented at this meeting because she feels other segments of society, not just schools, can benefit from the character education program. Mr. Eaton offered to provide additional information regarding the program to Representative Rader and her constituents.
Senator McGaha asked if the character coaches are volunteers or if they are paid for their efforts. Ms. Wilds said the coaches are provided a $500 stipend as a way to compensate them. She said they meet once each month at the district office to share information and ideas and obtain resources to provide to teachers regarding the word of the month. She said the coaches are also responsible for school level character in action programs giving as an example that the school district conducts a food drive each year and is the largest provider for God’s Food Pantry. Ms. Wild said some of the coaches are teachers, family resource and youth service employees, and other educators. Mr. Eaton said the can food drive is conducted as a competition between the two high schools and the “compassionate cup” is awarded at half-time of the basketball game between the two high schools to the school that provides the most donations. Ms. Wilds said they generally collect approximately 80,000 cans of food for the local food pantry each year. Mr. Eaton said it is important for the school to be out in the community and that many of the school’s staff participate on various boards.
Senator McGaha said he has received many comments from educators and business leaders regarding the positive impact the character education program is having on students and the community as a whole.
Senator McGaha said the next two meetings of the Interim Joint Committee on Education will not be held in Frankfort and therefore the next meeting of the subcommittee will be in November and will be chaired by Representative Edmonds.
There being no further business to discuss, the meeting adjourned at 11:15 AM.