Character Education on a District Level
Ask community members what they want in school climate and they’ll answer: ‘Develop the whole child’

By Donna M. Dunar/School Administrator, April 2016

Pennsbury School District in Fallsington, Pa., was one of only two public school districts to be honored by as a National District of Character in 2015.  (Photo courtesy of Pennsbury School District)
Almost 25 years ago, I had my first encounter with character education. As a high school assistant principal in a suburban school system in southeastern Pennsylvania, I was assigned to work on strategic planning goals labeled “Social Responsibility/Citizenship.”

I formed a committee and quickly filled a file with random notes. We met regularly and implemented some basic strategies developed by Thomas Lickona, one of the leaders in the field of character education. But we really didn’t accomplish anything substantive in the classrooms and hallways of the school.

The problems got worse at the school — disciplinary incidents, bullying, dating violence, prescription drug abuse, conflict and physical violence. We needed to be more proactive. The superintendent told administrators to build more positive relationships with students.

Mixed Results
A small group of dedicated teachers worked with me to develop a plan of action with measurable objectives to decrease discipline incidents and increase academic achievement. With a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Safety, we worked in consultation with the Bucks County Peace Center to implement a school climate survey and train our staff in Restorative Practices, which are strategies for changing school culture through discourse.

The staff leadership group, known as the Peace Collaborative, launched a student leadership group that examined ways to build a community of caring. Over time, the student leaders attracted classmates from increasingly diverse backgrounds, including those who most often felt disenfranchised. The student group engaged in school beautification, and social justice and community service projects. They ran regional leadership workshops at student leadership conferences.

Self-concept, attitudes, motivation, values, interests and emotions are components of positive self-actualization. We needed to nurture the affective domain as well as the cognitive domain, so we examined classroom strategies that addressed social-emotional issues, social skills, anxiety and peer pressure. I began researching social-emotional learning resources and came upon the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education endorsed by the Character Education Partnership, today known as The 11 principles framework provides a rubric for self-assessment in the context of the school community.

While those of us most closely involved in these efforts believed our endeavors held promise, the vision, unfortunately, was not shared among key leaders of the high school administration. The climate studies were rejected and the work dismissed. Sadly, I set the 11 principles framework aside — although not for long.

Soon after, I was appointed principal of an elementary school within the same school district. The staff was already interested in building positive relationships among students, parents and staff, and with the 11 principles as our framework, we transformed the school community into a nationally recognized School of Character as designated by

A Shared Commitment
The positive results of providing a climate where students feel safe, confident and eager to learn stayed with me, and when I was appointed assistant superintendent in another school district in Bucks County, Pa., I knew I wanted to continue that work.

Pennsbury School District, with 10,600 students, is one of the largest suburban school districts in Pennsylvania. When I arrived in Pennsbury, I observed the typical concerns for school safety and discipline issues. I also recognized there was not a proactive approach toward building positive relationships.

During the strategic planning process, a broad-based group of community and district stakeholders shared their desire to create a culture of caring that promoted not only academic achievement, but also the affective domain — the whole child. A shared vision and commitment to the mission across school boundaries laid the foundation for a districtwide effort focused on two goals: Develop the whole child and increase achievement for all students.

Today, all 14 of Pennsbury’s schools have been recognized as State Schools of Character and eight have achieved National School of Character recognition. The school district itself was recognized as a State and National District of Character in 2015.

Going Districtwide
Our journey to creating a culture of caring across a large district began with one school and grew to include all schools within three years. These were four strategies that we followed to implement our character education program:

»Include the community in your climate-change work.

Hold a community stakeholder event to find out what community members’ concerns really are. You can anticipate that whole-child issues will emerge, such as resiliency, bullying, Internet safety and anxiety. Assess your needs and target areas for improvement.

By engaging the community, you will share your vision and mission. At our stakeholder strategic planning event in Pennsbury, there was unilateral support for social-emotional learning, which we identified as a priority goal for the district. We called the effort “Developing the Whole Child.”

»Enlist support of central-office leadership.

Central-office leaders should encourage, coach and nurture building-level principals on this journey. For example, challenge an especially enthusiastic and passionate principal to enter the State and National School of Character Award recognition process. After your first school receives some recognition, the others will join in pursuit, with the previously recognized principal serving as a peer mentor.

In Pennsbury, we suggested to one trail-blazing principal that her building, Charles Boehm Middle School, had what it took to be a National School of Character. She led her team to the distinction of State and National School of Character in 2014. The following year, we had eight State and National Schools of Character, and the district received state and national recognition.

»Reach out to your state-level coordinator for character education.

Most states have a character education coordinator (find contact information at The benefit of partnering with the state affiliate is that this person comes with tremendous expertise and experience from the theoretical as well as practical perspective and knows the research to help you sell and implement what works.

In Pennsbury, our affiliate, Gregg Amore, dean of student affairs at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., has walked through our schools and provided our principals with constructive feedback through appreciative inquiry — the most positive and constructive professional development we have experienced. Through this process of facilitated self-reflection, our principals realized what they needed to do to improve.

»Continue learning.
One of the tenets of Michael Fullan’s Six Secrets of Successful Change is his emphatic comment, “learning is the work.” Fullan espouses the idea that we are continuously learning, and this needs to be our work. The work of improvement is rooted in continuous reflection and transparency. Through reflection, collaboration, examination of data and community engagement, we learn together as a system.

In Pennsbury, we gathered baseline data through the dissemination of climate surveys to staff, students and families. This information was reviewed by building-based and districtwide stakeholder leadership committees to target areas for improvement. Together we learn, and learning is the work.

Positive Results
Each of Pennsbury’s schools incorporates its own distinct character education initiatives. However, all the practices include elements such as community engagement, pro-social skills training, peer mediation programs, service learning, student leadership, expectations of success and positive reward systems. Each school infuses critical thinking and ethics into the curriculum. Secondary schools use restorative practices.

In February, the Pennsylvania affiliate of named six Pennsbury schools as 2016 State Schools of Character. These schools now will be considered by the national organization for National School of Character distinction.

By elevating character education as a district goal, you can ensure all your students develop as individuals as well as academically. And isn’t that what we all want as educators, parents and citizens?

Donna Dunar is assistant superintendent of the Pennsbury School District in Fallsington, Pa. E-mail: