South Charlotte

Character program may go statewide

Officials from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction recently observed - and applauded - Beverly Woods Elementary's Character Education program and would like to find ways to expand the concept to schools throughout the state.

Beverly Woods, on Quail Hollow Road, was recognized as a "National School of Character" in 2009 by the national nonprofit Character Education Partnership, and subsequently received a $3,000 grant, which the school used to purchase new library books, curriculum and professional development for character education.

Character education "helps reduce instances of discipline problems and bullying, making the kids aware of what's not tolerated, and how to advocate for themselves," said Beverly Woods school counselor Brigette Melchin. "It helps create that safe, community environment where students feel safe and comfortable."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' Character Education program is a partnership with parents and the community to help elementary school students understand and act upon basic values. Officials believe it improves school attendance, reduces classroom conflicts and encourages a commitment to helping others.

Systemwide, the schools focus on the same character trait each month, but each elementary school can develop its own ways of teaching the concepts. They've done respect, responsibility and honesty so far this year.

On Nov. 5, visiting officials from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Tracey Greggs, social studies section chief, and Jolene Ethridge, social studies consultant for elementary schools, got to see a few of the ways the school is incorporating character lessons into their everyday routines.

One method is through the school's new peer mediation program, where select fourth- and fifth-grade students help resolve disputes between two people or small groups.

Prospective peer mediators had to apply and be recommended by their teachers, and 30 students who demonstrate good character were chosen and trained.

Here's how the system works: Individuals having difficulties first go to their teachers. Then, in situations where deemed appropriate, the teachers ask the peer mediators to help.

Most often, the conflicts are verbal.

The mediators listen to both sides of the story, help the students come to a solution and - because confidentiality is so important - they shred their paperwork at the end of each session.

Greggs and Ethridge met with the fifth-grade peer mediators in the school's media center, and the students' excitement was near-tangible. The two women asked the students why they wanted to help in that capacity.

"I want to make this school a better place for people to learn," said Erin Gleason, 10.

"I became a peer mediator because I was bullied a lot last year," said Edwin Thomas, 11. "I tried to handle it myself; I tried to ignore them and tell them to stop, but it got out of hand."

"Well, do you think (peer mediation) is working?" asked Greggs.

Yes, said Emma Gagnon, 10. "It's harder to resolve a problem that you're in. If you're a peer mediator, you're not in the problem."

So far this year, the peer mediators have worked through about six different conflicts.

Melchin said there's a lot of research that shows peer mediation can be successful, but most of it is done at the middle and high school levels.

But Beverly Woods administrators thought it would be important for the kids to know conflict-resolution skills and how to be advocates for themselves as they enter middle school.

"(We want to) give them the skills and tools they'll need as they get older and more conflict-type situations apply," said Melchin.

Greggs and Ethridge's visit coincided with "Inclusion Week," where Beverly Woods shows its commitment to an equal education for students in its Exceptional Children program who have physical, learning behavioral, cognitive and speech special needs.

As an "inclusion school," Beverly Woods works hard to make sure its Exceptional Children program is an integral part of the school community and its Character Education program.

Greggs and Etheridge saw a hallway-long art project that showed students embracing those differences. In art class, every student in the school created one patch for the quilt showing their interpretation of accepting differences.

"Even though we have those weeks that emphasize (a character trait), we're not going to end it when we come back on Monday," said peer mediator Olivia Sullivan, 10.

Before leaving to sit in on a peer mediation, Greggs and Etheridge thanked the fifth-grade mediators for meeting with them.

"I'll have to figure out a way to get you to Raleigh to talk to some of our legislators," said Greggs.