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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

How do we define good character and citizenship? Should schools even try?

I mentioned in my preview of this week's school board meeting that our board was taking up some of the most substantive questions and issues it handles, and Tuesday's meeting did not disappoint (remember that video of every meeting is available on the district's site, usually within a day or two). The good news if you missed it is that it's not too late. To their credit, the board identified a few areas where further debate and discussion is warranted, and it will take those up later this month, Sept. 28, at its retreat. (I am tempted to put "retreat" in quotes here at all times, because hanging out in the first-floor conference room at the high school all day is not exactly akin to the mindful spa experience that the word suggests, rest assured).

Students' "connectedness" could be how we measure character and wellness

A couple of the board's most vexing questions will be on the agenda that day -- how to define and measure good character and citizenship, and how to define and measure "wellness." If you're not familiar with the district's governance policy, you might not know about its overarching goals -- it's "Results" policies, which the superintendent is expected to deliver on like a CEO delivers on his board of directors' mandates. You can read them here (scroll down) -- they're also posted on the wall at board meetings.

The Results policies are accompanied by what are called Operational Expectations, which offer guardrails for how the superintendent and his staff are supposed to deliver results, and how their success will be measured. Every few months, the superintendent and administrators -- most often the Director of Curriculum Tim Joynt and Business Manager Patrick Miller -- present a "Monitoring" report and sometimes suggest changes to the Operational Expectations. The board gets to see where the district is meeting expectations, delivering on its policies, and consider changes to what they measure.

Still with me? Tuesday night, there was a report-a-palooza, with annual reports on the district's progress on Character and Citizenship, Wellness, and Personnel Management. The first two will be on the agenda for the board's retreat as it considers potential changes to how it might measure the district's success at creating good citizens who demonstrate positive character traits and also are healthy and feel good.

This year, Superintendent Bryan Davis told the board, administrators are looking for ways to measure character, citizenship and wellness by the presence of positives rather than the absence of negatives -- for example, how students rate their feelings of belonging at school, rather than whether behavioral referrals are kept down to a certain level. I like this approach in general, not least because it's a bad idea to create an incentive to bury problems. However, defining the positives is tricky. How exactly do we decide which kids show good character?

Dr. Davis and Mr. Joynt suggested one way -- using the annual student survey indices that are already separated into categories by the survey company. One such index area is "Drive" -- which I mentioned in my last post feels pretty similar to the much-celebrated "Grit." I was glad to hear other board members hesitate at adopting this as a metric of strong character -- I'm not a fan of this one because I think looking at a kid's ability to seek out challenge and persevere will apply mostly to kids who come from privilege. It will not consider the strength it takes some kids just to survive high school -- kids who are struggling with their identity, kids who may be recovering from trauma or addiction. To be honest, I expect my kids to show drive and grit, but they have almost all the advantages possible in life on this planet -- I know that's not true of every kid in the district. But if not "Drive," what should the board look to to gauge success in producing students of good character?

If you're waiting for a brilliant suggestion from me, you'll need to wait until morning, because this is a tough nut. I'm also willing to consider that maybe this isn't the school's job -- or maybe not in the way we've thought. A friend sent along this column with that idea in mind. I can understand this viewpoint, though I think at a minimum, school should deliver some experience and guidance around being a helpful member of a community. It seems like we should at least expect schools to avoid sending sociopaths into the world, when they have a nice (usually) safe community to give kids practice with being citizens before they're out on Twitter, driving the interstate or voting. How do we know if we're succeeding or failing at that?

Almost as difficult is measuring whether our schools are helping students with their overall wellness. Here's the Results policy for Wellness. The district is introducing screening surveys this year for 8th and 9th graders to look for signs that kids need support or intervention either inside or outside of school. Mr. Joynt suggested in his report that the board start measuring the degree to which students report feeling "connected" at school, which is a great predictor of whether they will engage in risky, dangerous or unhealthy behaviors like substance abuse. I like that idea, but really in addition to making sure we offer appropriate interventions for kids who need it -- inside or outside of school. We can't assume that connectedness at school means all is well, since home, unfortunately, is the source of stress, abuse and trauma for some students.

What are your thoughts on measuring wellness, character and citizenship? Now is the time to write to the board and tell them, before their Sept. 28 retreat. You can send them all email at

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