Character-building is part of the curriculum

Raymond Ennis, a fifth grader at Gibbsboro Elementary, shows third graders the book he put together, "The Boy Who Had Lots of Integrity." Gibbsboro is among 50 finalists as National Character Schools.
Raymond Ennis, a fifth grader at Gibbsboro Elementary, shows third graders the book he put together, "The Boy Who Had Lots of Integrity." Gibbsboro is among 50 finalists as National Character Schools. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 01, 2014

GIBBSBORO Fifth grader Raymond Ennis penned a sticky scenario for his classmates: Would you keep your promise to play with your little brother or jump at the chance to hang out with a friend?

The response was swift and decisive from the youngsters in his reading group during a lesson on character at Gibbsboro Elementary School.

"If you make a promise, you should keep it," said Raymond, 11, drawing nods of agreement from a small circle of students.

At Gibbsboro Elementary, character-building is part of the curriculum for all ages and subjects. The efforts have changed the school culture and brought it national attention.

The Camden County school was among 50 schools and districts across the country recently named finalists as a National Character School. Nine New Jersey schools made the list.

The Cherry Hill Alternative High School and Gibbsboro were the only schools in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties selected as finalists by the Character Education Partnership, a national advocate for character education.

Only two Pennsylvania schools were chosen this year - Charles Boehm Middle School in Yardley and Pennell Elementary in Aston.

Gibbsboro operates on seven core values - the "Super 7" - that students and staff are expected to follow. They are: service, respect, integrity, motivation, compassion, positivity, and responsibility.

"We're asking you to do something that is difficult," said fifth-grade teacher Carla McIlmail. "It is hard."

During a lesson last week on integrity, Raymond and fellow fifth graders read to the third graders stories they had written and illustrated. Raymond's story was titled "The Boy Who Had Lots of Integrity."

McIlmail reinforced the lesson by asking the students to define integrity.

"Do the right thing even if no one is looking," said third grader Jordi Guifarro, 8.

"Do the right thing even if you don't get rewarded," added his classmate Skylar Bryant, also 8.

McIlmail asked the class: "What happens if you never get a certificate for integrity?"

"You still do it," replied Uche Okoro.

Besides making students better human beings and creating a more nurturing climate, the program has improved student performance, principal Brett Thorp said. The school has about 275 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade.

Last year, standardized test scores increased in grades three to eight, with math rising from 83 percent to 88 percent proficient and language arts from 71 percent to 72 percent proficient.

Disciplinary cases also dropped, from 26 central detentions in the 2010-11 school year to only four so far this year.

In the final round of the national selection process, the finalist schools undergo an intensive screening and site visits. The National Schools of Character will be announced in May.

The selection is not a competition, and the program "isn't about receiving an award," said Becky Sipos, interim chief executive officer of the Character Education Partnership.

"It is about doing the hard work in the classroom and community to transform schools and help kids that is important," Sipos said in a statement.

Launched four years ago, the Gibbsboro program was the brainchild of Superintendent Anthony Trongone, a former administrator in the Cherry Hill schools, which have been widely recognized for character education.

At the time, anti-bullying was a major issue, and the state had issued new guidelines. Rather than buy an expensive program, Trongone decided to create a character-based program.

"Why not be proactive and accentuate moral character? Why not focus on being a good person instead of skirting away from being bad?" said Trongone.

To start the school day, students recite a character pledge they helped write. Each month, the school holds a character pep rally for all students. The theme for March was integrity.

In April, the school will participate in a service project - packaging at least 10,000 dehydrated meals for the needy.

"It's not really a program. It's how you do things," Thorp said.

There are positive messages posted on walls and classroom bulletin boards throughout the meticulously kept one-story school. "Believe in yourself" reads one; another advises, "Follow the yellow brick road of respect."

While quietly changing classes in an orderly line, students politely greet a stranger with a friendly smile and wave and with soft choruses of "have a nice day."

"This is the best school ever," Raymond said.


mburney@phillynews.com

856-779-3814 @mlburney

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