Cherry Hill Public Schools reaches new heights with character education

Character.org recently recognized the school district as a National District of Character. It is the first time Cherry Hill Public Schools received the designation.

Over the past decade, schools across Cherry Hill Township have celebrated being recognized as National Schools of Character. Character.org hands out these designations to schools based on their work in character education and how their goals align with Character.org’s 11 Principles of Effective Character Education.

This year, character education reached new heights in the township when Cherry Hill Public Schools received its first-ever National District of Character designation. The district was one of only five to receive the honor nationwide this year.

The designation was announced one year after the school district was named a State District of Character. Cherry Hill Public Schools moved on to National District of Character consideration in 2017, but did not receive a designation.

To become a National District of Character, a district must go through an extensive application process similar to those who apply to become a National School of Character. More than half of Cherry Hill’s schools have been named a National School of Character over the past decade, with Bret Harte Elementary and Joseph D. Sharp Elementary becoming the latest schools to receive the designation this year.

Kirk Rickansrud, principal of Thomas Paine Elementary School and a member of the District of Character application team, said the 2017 application process was very rewarding as the district discovered ways it could improve its program for 2018.

The biggest area the district focused on this year was improving student voice. Rickansrud said the Character.org evaluation teams wanted more students to feel administrators, teachers and others in the district were hearing their voice.

Another area of focus was making sure each of the 19 schools’ character values were tying into the district’s own core values of respect, responsibility and citizenship. Lawyer Chapman, principal of the Cherry Hill Alternative High School and member of the application team, said the schools did this in a number of ways.

“One of the signs we came up with is ‘Be kind today,’” Chapman said. “We’re stressing kindness because we want all 19 of our schools to be caring communities.”

“Becoming a caring community is a goal a lot of our schools have bought into,” Chapman added.

Another area of improvement was found in the creation of the Cultural Proficiency/Equity/Character Education five-year plan. The plan was presented to the board of education in April and featured a set of character education goals for the district to reach in the near future.

Superintendent Joe Meloche felt the best part of becoming a National District of Character was going through the application process and finding ways to improve character education district-wide.

“One of the most valuable parts of the process truly is the process,” he said. “It’s the reflective process that we have gone through as a district asking ourselves, ‘is what we say we do what we actually do and how do we know if it’s actually taking place?’”

Rickansrud believes the district’s character education programs have made a tangible difference.

“I think in elementary, looking at discipline numbers, it’s really had an impact,” he said.

Chapman credited Rickansrud for the district’s success in strengthening its application this year, leading to its selection as a National District of Character.

“(Rickansrud) had the passion and really pushed all of us,” Chapman said. “He went through the review of the application and picked out those things the reviewers said we needed to improve on.”

School officials believe character education is an ongoing process. Chapman noted the district has changed greatly since he began working in Cherry Hill 23 years ago. He believes the district has had to adapt its practices to meet the needs of the changing population.

Meloche echoed Chapman’s comments.

“We need to be realist and pragmatist about what’s going on,” Meloche said. “The kids that we’re serving today have different needs than the kids had in 2005 or in 1995 or in 1985. It’s a different Cherry Hill.”

Rickansrud said the district plans to take a look at areas to improve on next year. One major focus will be how to improve the impact of student voice within the elementary schools. School administrators will also meet over the summer to talk about positive character education programs that can be implemented at other buildings in the district.

“What we need to do is replicate the things that are making such a huge impact,” Rickansrud said.

While there may be room for improvement, school administrators said they are proud of how far the district has come in character education. Meloche felt receiving the honor speaks positively not only of the district, but of Cherry Hill as a whole.

“The award is a reflection of the entire community,” he said. “It’s a reflection of Cherry Hill.”