School of Character distinction takes on new life in pandemic

Staff put themselves ‘out there and we made TikTok videos for the kids to watch and learn from’

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published May 26, 2021

 A student from Hart Middle School works on a message for  frontline workers.

A student from Hart Middle School works on a message for frontline workers.

Photo provided by Rochester Community Schools

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ROCHESTER/ROCHESTER HILLS/OAKLAND TOWNSHIP — Hart Middle School is one of 46 schools nationwide, and the only one in Michigan, to be named a 2021 National School of Character by Character.org.

When students were required to learn from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hart Principal Allison Roberts said, the character work continued.  

“We had to get really creative. We tried to reach the students through the platforms that they know best — social media — so we started a Hart TikTok account, and Mike and I put ourselves out there and we made TikTok videos for the kids to watch and learn from. We also used Wednesdays during remote learning, which were Wellness Wednesdays, to put out a character challenge on social media for the kids to participate in,” Roberts said of Assistant Principal Mike Bennion.

Teachers continued to work on character building activities with students too, Bennion said.

“There was a Google Doc where students could send messages to health care and frontline workers. We purchased banners, and our staff wrote the messages on the banners, and we delivered those banners to the fire station and local hospitals to show them that we support and that we appreciate all the hard work they were doing during the pandemic,” he explained.

Other activities included writing and delivering thank-you notes to parents, grandparents, teachers, counselors or whoever was supporting their remote learning; drawing positive messages on the sidewalk in their neighborhoods; and performing music for neighbors every Friday at 6 p.m. for a new “Play on the Porch” program during quarantine.

Roberts said the time spent working on character during quarantine was “probably some of the most important character work” they have done over the years.

“If you look at the virtues of what makes up your core value and your character — you’re talking about resilience, perseverance, self-discipline, self-control, self-motivation — all of those virtues were put into place and tested during quarantine and remote learning because you had to be a little bit resilient to get through some of those tough times. I think they probably  learned more about themselves and what they are capable of and how to advocate for themselves appropriately during that time, probably more than what we could have taught in a classroom,” she said.

Roberts said the school was originally named a State School of Character in 2019 and applied for the National School of Character designation in 2021.

The school, she said, underwent a rigorous evaluation process while documenting how staff researched, planned, implemented, evaluated and sustained the standards represented on Character.org.

“It’s super exciting and it’s a celebration of the hard work of our staff and our students,” said Roberts.

Roberts and Bennion came to Hart Middle School together seven years ago after working at one of the district’s high schools.

“We really saw it as a time in life when kids do so much development and growth personally and socially,” she explained. “You really are setting your core values, and we thought it would be a great time in life to really teach that and instill that while the students are maturing into young adults and figuring out a lot of things individually about themselves. We really just wanted to grab that, embrace it, accept it and teach it.”

Bennion — who learned of the Schools of Character program from a colleague who encouraged him to submit an application on behalf of the school — said the process helped guide the duo in developing an all-inclusive approach to character building, where students and staff could model, communicate and live core values and virtues so students understand the bigger picture of what’s important in life, alongside their traditional curriculum.

“It’s just a great framework for us to start to teach those lessons on how to be a good person, how to handle difficult situations, how to handle situations when people are being unkind to others, and really just teaching those core values and those character skills in order for them to be successful in life,” Bennion said.

The duo created a new school slogan, “Lead with H.A.R.T.,” — which stands for being helpful, accountable, respectful and thoughtful — and, along with staff, began embedding character lessons in the first 10 minutes of each day, called Hart Start. Using the framework provided by Character.org, building character — qualities that inspire honesty, integrity, courage and trust — was then incorporated into the common language, curriculum and daily interactions at the middle school.

Rochester Community Schools Superintendent Robert Shaner said the district is proud of Hart students, staff and families for “embracing opportunities to exemplify what it means to be honest, trustworthy, caring and kind.”

“We’re extremely proud,” Shaner said. “A ton of work went into building the culture of the school and a ton of work went into applying for the award and going through the process. The entire staff really deserves a piece of this and a piece of the gratitude for really having great outcomes for kids — because that’s what it’s all about.”

To earn the ranking, Character.org states, schools and districts must put into place “a comprehensive approach that inspires their students to understand, care about and consistently practice a set of core values that will enable them to flourish in school, in relationships, in the workplace and as citizens.” Criteria for the designation are based on Character.org’s “11 Principles of Effective Character Education,” which include providing students with opportunities for moral action, fostering shared leadership, and engaging families and communities as partners in character-building efforts.

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