Character Counts

This spring Southwestern High School launched a new phase of a character education program. It’s a student-led, student-driven program focusing on three broad aspects of character: respect, responsibility and tolerance.

Long before the Dignity for All Students Act mandated character education in all public schools in New York state, Southwestern High School had a vision to strengthen and build upon its program. A Character Education team was formed in 2011; its first goal was to survey all students and teachers in the building in regards to bullying. One of the most positive aspects of those results showed more than 90 percent of students surveyed “often” or “always” felt safe in the school. The committee made sure that interventions continued to be in place for the 10 percent of students who may not feel safe, but decided to move to a proactive, positive approach to character education and not focus solely on anti-bullying campaigns.

Hayley Restivo, a junior and student member of the Character Education committee, suggested the student-led program. She felt the student body would take the discussions seriously if it was presented by peers.

“Character education at Southwestern is a student-run program where students in the school get the chance to talk with their peers about high school related experiences. Essentially, we are creating a stronger bond within our school.”

Student volunteers were solicited and teachers also nominated natural leaders within the student body. Soon a team of 34 students was formed; the team includes students from all grade levels with a diverse set of interests. The student team participated in a day-long training off campus, filled with team-building activities and break out work sessions to develop the actual classroom presentations. The presentations are focused around respect, responsibility or tolerance. Each student at Southwestern High School will see at least one presentation this school year, with the goal of expanding the program into next year.

The members of the character education team have a lot of positive things to say about the program. MacKenzie Weinstein, a junior at Southwestern and a member of Team Responsibility, said, “I really like this program because it is important for people to hear different stories and how to bring it into your own life. If we can help even one person it’s worth it. It has been a fun experience.”

Nick Briggs, a junior and member of Team Tolerance, said, “Character education is an opportunity to give kids a chance to talk to a fellow peer about their problems in a safe setting and we can help them find a safe solution.”

Abbey Andrews, a sophomore and member of Team Respect, notes the students’ reactions to the presentations. “So far the students have reacted positively; I think they feel it is something that will help make our school a better place. I hope we are showing the students that we care about them.”

Mike Cipolla, principal of Southwestern High School, is thrilled with the program. “Our students have embraced the concept of character education and bring an array of experiences and skill sets. This has proven to be beneficial to our entire student body. Students at Southwestern High School recognize the importance of respect and an appreciation for individuality. Needless to say, we are extremely proud of our student body. They have met this challenge head on, and we are confident positive results will continue. “