Blog: Frank Nardelli

Detroit Public Schools' high school graduation rate was an abysmal 38 percent in 2005, ranking it 48th out of the nation's 50 largest school systems, says a recent America's Promise Alliance study. Others have pegged it as low as 25 percent. Frank Nardelli, principal of Detroit's Dove Academy, a K-7 charter public school, is waging a turnaround one campus at a time. His lesson plan? Parental involvement, a club that goes beyond the usual extracurriculars, and visions of the Big Ten dancing in children's heads.

Post 3: Inspiring Great Thinkers, Great Citizens

Let's go beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic, not to mention technology, social studies and science.  There's another vital subject: character education.  

I'm talking true character education — the kind that makes a good school great and is felt in every classroom, every hallway, every day.  The kind that's a way of life, for students, parents and the entire staff.

Picture a couple hundred students a month trekking to the school office.  They've been "caught" by teachers or peers modeling one of the six pillars of character: trust, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.  

They place their positive referral in a box.  At a monthly assembly, "Mission Impossible" blares as the CIA (Character in Action) agents emerge — teachers dressed in black clothing and sunglasses.  They draw one name, read the summary of his or her good deed, and that student wins a hat, t-shirt, and sweatshirt from the university adopted by his or her classroom.

Likewise, picture 6th graders, knowing that they alone are responsible for their futures, meeting one-on-one with the principal to discuss careers, college majors, and universities with strong programs in their chosen fields.

Picture kindergartners creating a video that summarizes a year's worth of character education.  In one skit, a student basks in the glow of his teacher's praise after turning in a dollar found on the floor.

Picture groups of students voluntarily asking to coordinate fund-raisers for community needs.

At Detroit's Dove Academy, a K-7 charter public school serving nearly 500 students, we build on a national "Character Counts" program and speak a distinct language:

"Make no excuses; accept no excuses…"  

"I am important.  I am smart…"  

"Don't just say something, act on it…"  

We recite a character pledge four mornings a week.  The fifth day is reserved for a college-bound pledge.

We don't have discipline referrals, we have character violations.  Instead of issuing punishments, we plan how to act with good character in the future.

Every day, every classroom has two junior CIA members, stealthily watching their peers for model behavior.

Two or three Fridays a month, we end the week with Character Club, multi-age groups doing activities to support that month's designated character.  A teacher and a 7th-grade assistant lead each group.

The first Friday in December, for example, our Character Clubs made decorations and placemats for an upcoming community dinner.  It's free for parents and the surrounding neighborhood, though guests may bring a blanket, book or stuffed animal for "Project Night-Night," to brighten the lives of children in area homeless shelters.

Why all of this, you ask?  Isn't character the job of families?  Don't our teachers have enough to do?  The answer is that great schools shape great thinkers and great citizens … and they do so in partnership with parents.  

In a five-year study of the Character Counts program, researchers at South Dakota State University survey as many as 8,419 students and teachers a year.  The results are extensive, including a 50 percent decline among students breaking into another's property, a 32 percent drop in usage of illegal drugs, and a 33 percent fall in the issue of physical force after being insulted.  Cheating on tests fell 30 percent.

I make it a point to tell our 7th-graders that they're the best, the brightest, the oldest, and they're expected to lead the entire campus.  Recently, they all signed a card for me, placing their signatures under the heading, "Your School Leaders."

Students love to live up to expectations.