Oklahoma Schools Increasingly Embrace Character Education

Madison Tomlinson, director of character education with the Muskogee Pubic Schools, says it is time for education to take a broader view of issues behind substance abuse. He said he was not surprised several years ago when Muskogee Public Schools officials asked him to lead the district’s initiative in alcohol and drug abuse prevention. A former biology teacher at Muskogee High School. Tomlinson was willing to again take up the cause of fighting substance abuse —but with the caveat that “it will be under the character education umbrella.” 

Character education works to develop the sort of core values — integrity, honesty, compassion and grit — that transcend the classroom to help build happy, productive lives. In 2005 with House Bill 1704, character education or K-12 along with an initial grant for character education. “We determined that we needed to look at our school culture based on the lens of character evelopment,” Tomlinson said. 

Among the biggest cheerleaders of character education is the Oklahoma State Department of Education. OSDE staff works to provide resources and assistance to districts pursuing character education. “More and more schools across Oklahoma are recognizing the meaningful and enduring benefits of character education,” said Sonia Johnson, OSDE’s director of 21st Century Community Learning Centers. “It is exciting to see interest in it spread, particularly during a time in which we see young people dealing with revolutionary social challenges —from texting to Facebook and Twitter —that previous generations couldn’t have imagined.” 

For many years, Edmond’s Character Council has provided Character First training for the Edmond School District’s elementary school teachers. A new program, called Engage, embeds the Character First qualities into an anti-bullying curriculum. About 30 teachers attended the 4-hour seminar at First Presbyterian Church under the leadership of the author of the book “ENGAGE An Active Response to Bullying,” by Edmond resident Virginia Smith. “We have had character education programs in the hope to build character in our district schools,” said Tara Fair, district associate superintendent of educational services, “like Great Expectations and Rachel’s Challenge.” Fair said this is the first time the district has been offered a curriculum to follow in the classrooms. 

Under Tomlinson’s leadership, Muskogee High School was designated a State School of Character (SSOC) by the Character Education Partnership, now named Character.org. Muskogee currently boasts two State Schools of Character: Sadler Arts Academy and Rougher Alternative Academy. Hilldale Middle School, located in Muskogee but part of Hilldale Public Schools, is also a SSOC. Tomlinson moved quickly to transform the culture of schools in the district. “Character clubs” sprang up in the elementary schools, while “character camps” over the summer helped carry on the importance of character education. Tomlinson recalled getting particularly inspired at a 2009 character education forum in Washington, D.C. “Even though we’d done things with character clubs in schools, it had
not been embedded in our culture as a whole,” Tomlinson said. Experts say the most effective character education is integrated into a curriculum. By way of example, Tomlinson points to high school instruction about the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. That invariably leads to discussion about determination, resilience and faith — character traits that were critical in Oklahoma’s eventual healing. Similarly, Muskogee students read about the Holocaust, which spurs an array of worthwhile topics. “Why were the concentration camps detrimental to mankind? What human virtues existed in those individuals who were survivors?” Tomlinson said. “You build those things into the curriculum.” Muskogee schools’ comprehensive approach to character education has had positive results. Tomlinson said test scores are up and attendance figures have improved. Disciplinary issues have declined.