HIGHTSTOWN: Local school applying for National School of Character status

By Amy Batista, Special Writer
The Ethel McKnight Elementary School wants to serve as a model and mentor to other schools as a National School of Character.
National Schools of Character are schools, early childhood through high school, that have demonstrated through a rigorous evaluation process that character development has had a positive impact on academics, student behavior, and school climate. These schools become part of a network of Schools of Character that serve as models and mentors to other schools and hold their designation for five years, according to character.org.
“(Principal Silvana) Zircher came to me and spoke to me about this as a recommendation,” said Interim Superintendent of Schools Thomas Gialanella.
Mr. Gialanella said he does have some experience with the application process to gain the status.
“One of my former districts and schools, my wife’s school, took part in this,” he said. “It’s a lot of work and I cautioned when it came to me — the recommendation — to make sure you understand that this is a lot of work.”
The Ethel McKnight School Climate and Culture Committee began work in May 2015 toward applying for National School of Character status. The committee includes eight members of the school community.
“We are looking this year to open it up to also a parent and a community member,” said Principal Zircher, noting that they are looking to add the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officer to the committee.
The application process involves a yearlong commitment, she told the Board of Education during its Aug. 31 meeting.
“I asked that a presentation be made tonight and we go over it a little bit because of the staff development and field trip section,” Mr. Gialanella said. “There is a recommendation of sending some teachers to Atlanta to go to the national convention.”
Three members of the committee would like to attend the convention. The cost to attend the 2015 National Forum on Character Education, which includes four training days, travel, lodging, and meal reimbursement, is approximately $1,700 per person, according to the board’s information packet.
Principal Zircher told the board about the initiative and why the school wants to apply for the award.
“So basically, last year our school decided to form a School Climate and Culture Committee, (which is) looking at things in the building like the way that students and adults interact,” she said.
The School Climate and Culture Committee surveyed students about how they feel supported in school and how the school could improve in supporting them.
“We did a lot of work to this end,” Principal Zircher said.
Then, the district was monitored by Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) in the spring.
“During that time, the county superintendent had the opportunity to visit the McKnight School and she pointed out some of the things that she noticed that we had put in place because of the School Climate and Culture Committee,” Principal Zircher said. “What she suggested and recommended is that we really look into this national recognition — this award — because we had already done so many things that are part of the components that are evaluated in this award.”
The School Climate and Culture Committee looked into the award and really felt strongly about pursuing it, according to Principal Zircher.
“I proposed that we could send three members from the School Climate and Culture Committee to receive additional training, specifically pertaining to the 11 principles that are evaluated in order to get this National School of Character status,” she said.
Board member Peter Bussone asked, “Have you talked to any of the schools in the state of New Jersey who have gone through the process?”
Principal Zircher said Mr. Gialanella gave her contact information for a school that has gone through the process.
“It is one of the first things that we are going to pursue once we reconvene as a committee — to reach out to that school and principal and find out their experiences with the process,” she said.
Other schools in the area that have gone through the process include Old Bridge and Lawrenceville schools. She said the committee would also reach out to them for support.
“Will you report back to us on what you find after talking with them,” Mr. Bussone asked.
Principal Zircher said she or one of the committee members would follow up with the board.
Board President Alice Weisman asked, “What would you anticipate the end result of this entire process being in terms of the environment in your school moving forward?”
Principal Zircher said one of the major things the committee wants to develop is a common language among adults, especially when it comes to communicating with students.
“We wanted to clarify and really have specific language for our expectations of students,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that across the board we were setting high expectations for all students.”
The committee also wants to make sure that the time spent teaching students social skills is embedded within academic content and curriculum, according to Principal Zircher.
“In terms of how we would assess that some of those things are happening, I would think that part of the work that we do and part of what even this evaluation process would require us to do, is to continually survey our students, survey our parents, survey our community, survey our teachers, and make sure that some of those areas that we are identifying areas that need improvement are some of the things that we are putting in place are actually effective,” she said.
Board member Bertrand Fougnies asked how the status could affect other schools in the district.
“Sometimes it spreads to other schools within the district,” Mr. Gialanella said. “I think Old Bridge is an example of that. It can’t be district driven. It really needs to be school and staff driven.” 