NEA - National Education Association

05/22/2024 | News release | Distributed by Public on 05/22/2024 19:33

Reduce Behavior Problems, Boost Attendance: Schools of Character

As the Community School Coordinator at Mahatma Gandhi Community School in northern New Jersey, Meredith Mullen creates a supportive environment for all students.

"We use the house system - like in Harry Potter," Mullen explains. "The students might look different, eat different foods, celebrate different holidays, but when they're in the same house, it brings them together."

This year, Mahatma Gandhi Community School was recognized as a State School of Character. Mullen's next goal is to be named a National School of Characterby, a nonprofit organization comprised of educators, researchers, business and civic leaders who care about the role that character will play in our future.

A School of Character Emphasizes Positive Traits'sSchools of Character program has guided thousands of schools working to unite and transform school communities by embodying positive character.

The organization works with schools to customize a framework based on eleven principlesschools can use to plan, implement, assess, and sustain their comprehensive character development initiative.

The principles focus on all aspects of school life, including school culture and climate, social and emotional learning (SEL), student engagement, academic achievement, restorative practices, teacher morale, and parent engagement.

Mullen says that celebrating the diversity of her school's students and the wider community helps foster respect for others, a foundation of character.

Jersey City, where Mahatma Gandhi is located, is one of the most diverse cities in the nation. This diversity is represented among the student body.

"Most of our students are first generation," Mullen explains, "I always say that diversity is our greatest strength, and it's something that we use to our benefit. Celebrating diversity and developing character is embedded in all the programing and initiatives we promote at our school."

Community Schools Model and Schools of Character Go Hand-in-Hand

Mullen explains that Mahatma Gandhi Community Schoolhad already been doing the work to emphasize a positive school culture and instill character into every daypractices.

"It was a natural progression for us to apply to the Schools of Character," she says. "Our core values are being inclusive and supportive, emphasizing opportunity for all, celebrating diversity, and including family members and communities in everything we do. This lifts up our Community Schoolmodel. We were already doing all ofthis work."

Meredith Mullen

But Mullen doesn't take all the credit for herself. She explains how teamwork is crucial for maintaining a positive school culture.

"This work can't be a one-person show," says Mullen, "The most successful Community Schools put structures in place so that if I were to leave tomorrow, our work would continue on. We've built a really strong team here.Once you build strong foundations, itkind of just takes off on its own."

Schools of Character experience overwhelmingly positive outcomes, according to, because they are places where students, educators, and parents truly want to be.

Mullen confirms the positive impact.

"Our chronic absenteeism rates have dropped - kids want to come to school," she explains. "That's a huge win. Our suspensions and bullying incidents are way down. Our house system and student leadership opportunities give kids a sense of belonging. Another huge win is that our teachers don't want to leave. With teacher burnout so rampant, the fact that teachers want to come to work strengthens the community and our relationships with families and students."

Today, school behavior often tops the list of educators' concerns. But Mullen explains that Mahatma Gandhi's emphasis on building community and student leadership opportunities has helped them mitigate behavioral challenges.

Emphasizing Character Helps Reduce Behavior Problems

"I don't think behavior is a big issue at our school," Mullen recounts, "We are very restorative-focused, asking the students how they can change their behavior for next time. The house system provides leadership opportunities for students, and they can do peer-mediation with each other. When it's student-led, it's so much more powerful. We are also a PBIS school(Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) and this gives students the opportunity to earn points for their house around academics, attendance, and behavior. Because we're celebrating student success so often, the negatives are minimal."

As Mahatma Gandhi works towards becoming a National School of Character, they are turning their focus to family engagement. Mullen explains, "Because we are so diverse, we have todo a lot of outreachto families. Over the past few years, we've grown our family engagement tremendously, but I want to push us further. I want parents at the table, making decisions, and planning events with us."

The National Schools of Character program has been a helpful tool for Mullen and her colleagues.

"It's a great framework to follow, especially for community schools," she says.

Mullen urges other educators to continue working towards their goals. "Never get complacent," she advises. "The only thing that's constant in education is change, and we always have to be willing to keep growing and push forward."