Joyce Kilmer School designated as New Jersey State School of Character

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MILLTOWN – Character education and school climate have been priority initiatives for the past few years in the Milltown Public School District.

On Jan. 25, Joyce Kilmer School, a 4-8 grade school, was one of 21 schools in the state designated a New Jersey State School of Character.

Each year, Character.org, a national advocate and leader for character, 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.

Character.org designated 76 schools and one district as State Schools of Character for 2021. In addition, Character.org is recognizing two international schools in Brazil and Mexico as Schools of Character.

Since its inception, Character.org’s Schools of Character program has positively impacted nearly 3 million students, staff, parents and other community members.

“This is the first time we received recognition and first time we applied,” said Jaclyn Citro, assistant principal for the district, adding the application process was a year in the making. “We had to show evidence for the 11 principal framework of Character.org and provide testimonials and surveys of students, staff and parents.”

The focus on character education is embedded at both Joyce Kilmer and Parkview schools. It began through a School Climate Transformation grant the district received through Rutgers University three years ago to help improve the overall school climate at Joyce Kilmer.

“We have a strong belief when we think of the whole child,” Citro said. “Unless the student [feels] socially and emotionally safe and secure and feels they belong somewhere, it is hard for them to achieve academically.”

Over the years, the district, led by Schools Superintendent Stephanie Brown, Citro and Chelsea Devine, a fifth grade teacher, has worked on taking proactive steps with more and more training and professional development and providing different initiatives and programs in character education and social and emotional learning.

Core values of CARES (cooperation, assertive, responsible, empathy and self control) are integrated in lesson plans and professional development calendars.

For example, Citro said if a bad word is used or a paper is thrown, a teacher will hold a conference with the student and ask which of the core values the student forgot. In the case of a bad word, the student may say empathy and in the case of a paper thrown, the student may say self control.

The importance of social and emotional learning has been heightened because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“One of the biggest components is the relationship of the student with their teacher,” Citro said. “This is more difficult with remote learning. When in school, the teacher can greet the student in the classroom every day by name. I have encouraged teachers to log on ahead of their students, continue to greet students by name and take a pulse of the class and see where they can connect on a personal level, whether they see the student’s dog in the background or ask about soccer practice.”

Brown said the success of the district’s work on building relationships between students and teachers was evident in a recent survey. Teachers were asked how successful they have been in building relationships with their students in the remote learning setting.

Around 75% of the teachers surveyed felt successful in building relationships with their students. Brown said she attributes the high percentage to years of training.

Schools and districts announced on Jan. 25 will be considered for Character.org’s highest distinction of National School of Character.

“We congratulate these schools on achieving State School of Character designation in a year filled with so many challenges,” Dr. Arthur Schwartz, Character.org’s president, said in a release announcing the schools. “The educators and parents at these schools work  together to ensure that every child understands, cares about, and consistently practices the core values that form the heart of each family and school. We are honored to recognize their efforts and share their inspiring work with schools and school districts throughout the United States and internationally.”

The 2021 National Schools of Character will be announced in May and honored at the National Forum next fall in Washington, D.C.