Respect. Responsibility. Honesty. Kindness. Perseverance.

These are the character traits the South Milwaukee School District has been weaving into the district’s curriculum – and students’ lives – for the past two years. Perhaps not surprisingly, these traits have started to influence the community as well.

“Our character education program really brought together a lot of things that were loosely connected,” says Colin Jacobs, principal at Rawson Elementary. “It’s helped us to fine-tune our focus and now includes everything from reactive and restorative discipline to community events and conversations about how we live those character traits.”

South Milwaukee’s character education program began taking shape about two years ago, when district leaders decided to learn more about character training in education. They discovered Alverno College’s Leadership Academy for Character Education (now called Leadership Advancing Character & Culture in Schools, or LACCS), and by year’s end, every principal in the South Milwaukee School District, the District’s Office of Instruction staff, the Pupil Services Director and the district superintendent had attended the Leadership Academy.

“The Academy was instrumental in helping us define a common vision to get started,” reports Jacobs. The Academy provided education and examples of character education programs. South Milwaukee district leaders carefully studied the programs and decided to adapt one to meet their district’s needs.

They began by asking students, staff, parents and members of the community to vote on the character traits they wanted to represent South Milwaukee. Respect, responsibility, honesty, kindness and perseverance won the vote, and school leaders set about developing a character education program to develop those traits.

Schools in the district spend two months focusing on a trait. The first two months of the school year, for instance, focuses on respect. “That’s a really abstract concept, but we can teach even our youngest kids that respect means giving yourself space and keeping your hands to yourself,” Jacobs says.

The district extends that emphasis on respect into the community with the schools’ participation in Going Pink for the Cure, a Susan G. Komen event designed to increase awareness of breast cancer. “Our high school students design a T-shirt, and our schools join together to make a donation to the fundraiser. It’s a citywide event and a form of community outreach for our schools - all built around the trait of respect,” Jacobs says.

In the schools, educators have revamped and restricted their lessons so that character is emphasized both in and outside of the classroom. The district uses Second Step character education materials in grades 4k-5. Teachers and staff consistently explain and reinforce character expectations. And teachers weave character ed into lessons whenever possible, by discussing perseverance, for example, when reading the fable of "The Tortoise and The Hare." Parents are invited to partner in the process at every step.

This year, district staff have expanded their character education program to include adult interactions. “We’ve defined what it looks like for us as adults to show respect to each other,” Jacobs says. “We wanted to weave our character language into our expectations of ourselves as adults on a daily basis.”

Implementing a quality character education program takes time, but Jacobs believes the effort is well worth it. “Once you get the momentum rolling and get a sense of some of the benefits, your efforts begin to snowball and you really see an impact on teaching and learning,” he says.