Guest post by Thomas Kachadurian
In 2011, I attended a character education summit at Sage College with my fellow associate principal Chris Robilotti. After attending a seminar on cultivating stakeholder ownership, we walked away with a new mission to take our successful middle school bullying prevention program and build it in the high school setting.
Using the information we gathered at Sage, Chris and I plotted a course—and over an eight-month period, we surveyed our faculty at nearly each monthly meeting. We gave them about 200 adjectives or descriptors and asked one simple question: What are the most important attributes that you want every single Colonie Central High School graduate to embody? After much discussion and dwindling down of lists, the faculty finally decided on these five words: integrity, community, accountability, respect, and empathy. We chose the acronym iCARE to reflect our shared vision of every individual invested in bringing about positive change.
Creating a Voice for the Voiceless
With the faculty on board, we needed to sell iCARE to the students. With the help of a student leader named Jason and six other students, we embarked on a mission that would have a lasting and important impact. Jason cared first and foremost about “giving a voice to the voiceless.” He recognized that there were a large number of students who were completely disenfranchised from school. Rather than looking at the school as a place of exploration and opportunity, they saw it as a burden and felt school was a place they did not belong.
Jason’s philosophy of helping everyone find their voice began to hone our interactions throughout the school. We looked to find opportunities to make our school more inclusive. We put up inspirational quotes and made positive images to adorn our walls. We designed a logo, distributed it to every classroom, and made larger versions to showcase in our hallways. We sent personal invitations for students to attend our iCARE meetings. Jason created his own logo to put into a mural and make into buttons that we sold throughout the building. We talked a great deal about how to thoughtfully align our voices and build worth and purpose back into the student population—that was the lynchpin to our movement.
Aligning Our Voices and Uniting the School
Our campaign grew as we attempted to educate the student body about who we were and what we wanted to do as a united school. Three activities in particular showcase the power of our iCARE initiative in its infancy:
- Character and community workshops: We created a 30-minute iCARE period at the end of the day. Two teachers worked together in each classroom with ninth-period students. The class would follow along with a student (typically Jason) on the PA system to a lesson that I presented earlier to the faculty through emails and meetings. The presentations included a video montage of faculty offering varying definitions of what respect means; an article about empathy; a reflective letter I wrote to my oldest daughter when she entered kindergarten; and teacher-led discussions.
- Character rally: On the second day of school, we held an assembly with our entire population in the gym. Students watched multiple videos, student performances, and more. One of the most powerful moments occurred when students held foam boards together which read, “Where do you belong?” On cue, the students started a choreographed routine of board flipping and reassembling. After a couple minutes, the answer to the question was revealed: “You belong here. Welcome home Raiders.” Our gym, jam-packed with almost 1,800 people, was completely silent. The presentation ended with a video of nearly every faculty member looking directly at the camera saying either, “You belong here,” or, “Welcome home, Raiders.”
- Sandy Hook ribbon campaign: After the Sandy Hook tragedy, Jason and the iCARE team wanted to do something to remember the 26 lives lost and generate some good from this terrible evil. The team made black pin ribbons with the number 26 on each. We asked students to commit to performing 26 acts of kindness over the next month. Every teacher had an allotment of ribbons to distribute. The ribbons quickly became badges of honor; many kids competed with one another to see who could get 26 ribbons first. In full disclosure, some of these acts were true and sincere while others were not. But it addressed and influenced the culture of the building for about a month; kids were doing, and that was the realization.
What iCARE has taught us is that if we are to be successful in improving our school community, we don’t need to talk at students and educate by lecture. Instead, we need to create opportunities for students to show us that they get it and want change too. Let students be the driving force of that change, let them own it, let them care.
This was just the humble beginnings of our iCARE program. This initiative has continued to evolve and has made a tremendous impact on our school community. In later posts, I will share other iCARE events that have brought the community together and show how iCARE can transform the way a school works with our most difficult students. If you would like to learn more about the iCARE initiative, please contact me at [email protected].
What character education initiatives have been effective at your schools? Could a program like iCARE help unite your school community and create a voice for the voiceless?
Thomas Kachadurian is an associate principal at Colonie Central High School in Albany, NY. He was the 2017 New York Assistant Principal of the Year.