Three Tuscaloosa schools are among the five singled out in Alabama as State Schools of Character by the international group Character.org.
Westlawn Middle School, Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools-Elementary and Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools-Middle join Cornerstone Schools of Alabama High School in Birmingham and Vestavia Hills Elementary East on the prestigious list of 69 schools selected nationwide. Tuscaloosa has more schools than some states on the list, while only New Jersey, Missouri and Texas have more schools honored than Alabama.
“We are incredibly thrilled to have three State Schools of Character, as this affirms our work in building students with strong character that prepares them for being contributing citizens, productive employees and overall good people,” Tuscaloosa City Schools Superintendent Mike Daria said of the five-year certifications. “We are equally proud of the 11 other schools in our system that applied and were designated as ‘emerging’ or ‘honorable mention.’”
Strong character is the foundation of success for Tuscaloosa’s 21 city schools, Daria said. By concentrating on character, teachers are preparing students to be agents of positive change in their community.
“I could not be more proud of our schools and school system for making this important,” said Daria, a veteran educator who is in his sixth year as superintendent. “When our young people operate on core values of strong character, they make decisions from these core values. They see the importance of serving others and helping their communities. They see the good in other people and see their role in making their schools, workplaces and communities better.”
Westlawn Principal Darlene Atkins said she’s seen many examples among the student body of the character efforts paying off, including positive peer-to-peer interactions, such as students assisting others on and off campus. She said the most important aspect is the decision to make better choices.
“We are thrilled beyond words to have received this designation,” Atkins said. “However, we realize that this is only the beginning, and we will continue doing the work necessary to ensure that all of our students are successful.”
Atkins said the designation affirms that Westlawn is on the right track to ensuring students “are in position to be the absolute best they can possibly be.” The honor equally confirms the school and its 543 students are “making tremendous strides” in building character and finding pride in their efforts.
“They are happy to boast that they are students of Westlawn Middle,” she said.
Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools-Middle Principal Constance Pewee-Childs believes character should be a part of a school’s culture alongside core values of excellence, diversity, service, integrity, inquiry and leadership. Students will be served well throughout their lives by learning and adopting these characteristics, she said.
“The recognition of State School of Character is beyond exciting, but the process itself was beyond beneficial because it required us to dig deep and determine if our efforts were working and positively impacting students,” Pewee-Childs said. “Our school aims to foster the development of the whole child by being intentional in teaching and embedding character into our academic curriculum and school activities.”
Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools-Middle’s 163 students are involved in the community through many efforts, such as the Camp McDowell Farm School and a collaborative Black History program. “Passion Projects” have included aiding elementary school students, growing plants in the school garden, painting murals and raising money to build wells in Kenya.
“Our school community is full of individuals who care for one another and the world in which we live,” said Pewee-Childs. “We believe it is essential to give back, engage and take care of our community.”
Principal Preeti Nichani said teachers and the 300 students at Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools-Elementary are “pretty pumped” about being named a State School of Character for the first time.
“It gives me vast comfort in knowing that our school’s character pledge reminds everyone at our school daily of our five core values: Caring, Respect, Integrity, Principled and Critical Thinking,” Nichani said. “As a school, this character journey is a commitment to an education that goes beyond the four walls of the schoolhouse. We embrace this journey to teach our TMSE community to stand up for others and to do what is morally correct.”
Nichani said guidance from Character.org has helped shift the focus at her school. While academics remain the driving force, character education is now embedded within the curriculum.
“At our school, our faculty and students’ unique backgrounds and interests are celebrated,” Nichani said. “Our teachers foster student collaboration and appreciate new ideas as they build our school’s community.”
Daria said the success of each student is rooted in “good and strong character,” and the concept is foundational for each school. Jessica Constant facilitates character training for Tuscaloosa City Schools, working with a team of teachers at each school who work with some of the system’s 11,000 K-12 students.
“This work aligns with our pillars with West Alabama Works and the Chamber of Commerce,” said Daria, who has worked in Tuscaloosa City Schools all but one year since starting his career in 1996. “It truly is a community effort to build character in our young people. We are thankful to West Alabama Works and the Tuscaloosa Education Foundation for their support. Further, we are deeply grateful to the amazing faculty and staff in our schools who are doing this work.”
A committee from the national organization reviews each school submission before choosing state honorees.
“Each of these schools and districts have put into place a comprehensive initiative that equips and empowers their staff to reinforce and model a range of positive core values that will shape and form the hearts, minds and choices of their students,” said Arthur Schwartz, president of Character.org headquartered in Washington, D.C.
Character.org empowers people of all ages to practice and model the ethical core values it promotes internationally, said Meg Tinkham, director of Communications and Marketing.
Formerly known as the Character Education Partnership, the organization has advocated for character since 1993. Today, Character.org creates and shares resources including the “11 Principles Framework for Schools: A Guide to Cultivating a Culture of Character.” The organizational vision is to be the global leader and voice for developing character in families, schools and organizations.
Since its inception, Character.org’s Schools of Character program has had a positive impact on nearly 3 million students, teachers, parents and community members, Tinkham said. Each year, Character.org certifies schools and districts at the state level that demonstrate a dedicated focus on character development, which has a positive effect on academic achievement, student behavior and school climate.
The Alabama schools are eligible to become National Schools of Character, Tinkham said. One school in the state, Vestavia Hills Elementary West, is currently on the National Schools of Character list.