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Back to school: Character education shakes up middle school routines

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

“Middle school years are a waste of time. That’s what they said in college,” Jamie Curry recalled. Since then, studies have found that the brain grows at its fastest rate during adolescence. At Waccamaw Middle School, where Curry is in her third year as principal, a new character education program will try to accommodate that growth.

Capturing Kids’ Hearts is a trademarked program developed by a Texas-based psychotherapist, Flip Flippen. It’s been used in Georgetown County’s high schools and is moving to the four middle schools with funding through a three-year federal grant. Waccamaw and Georgetown middle will implement the program this year.

“I hate to call it a program, that sounds pejorative,” Curry said. “It’s a process.”

That process is all about building relationships. It began with teachers meeting students at the classroom door with a handshake during an open house this week. “They were a little taken aback,” said Judith Buzzell, an eighth-grade math teacher. But they soon got the idea. Ashton Lee-Goretzke, a seventh-grade English and social studies teacher, found kids waiting in line for a handshake.

The greetings continued Wednesday morning with the start of the new school year. Jim Hooks, a PE teacher, didn’t get the chance to shake hands with Lorelai Moore, a returning eighth-grader, she ran up and hugged him. He fared better with Ellison Oxner, another eighth-grader, who met his outstretched hand with a firm shake. “I don’t want to over-do it,” Hooks said.

As students headed through the halls to their classrooms, some were already shaking hands with one another. They hadn’t been told about the program yet, but teachers saw that as evidence of one of its strengths: staff will model the behavior they expect from their students.

Each classroom will have a “social contract,” rules of behavior that students and staff agree to follow. “These are expectations that students create and agree to,” Curry said. “It’s more meaningful when they have ownership.”

She was assistant principal at Waccamaw High when it started Capturing Kids’ Hearts. Flippen came to the district to speak with school staff. “I’ve always been impressed by him,” Curry said. “I’m intrigued by his data.”

A 2009 study of schools in New York and California by the Flippen Group showed that test scores went up and discipline referrals went down at schools implementing the program compared with other schools. It noted that the effectiveness was linked to support from administration and the extent to which teachers implement Capturing Kids’ Hearts initiatives.

Staff at Waccamaw Middle is on board. “We’re all in the same boat rowing in the same direction,” Curry said.

While character education programs are not new, “it’s taking character education to a whole new level,” said Kelly Price, a seventh-grade math teacher starting her 13th year at Waccamaw. “It was eye-opening in a lot of ways.”

The fact that everyone in the building is following the same principles is part of its strength, Price said. “It’s never been this deep or this embedded in school culture,” she added. “It’s one thing to have a sign on the door, it’s another to live it daily.”

Respect is one component, and it applies to both sides of the social contract. “If they break the rules, we go to them one-on-one,” Price said. “How you phrase things kind of cuts down on any escalation.”

It isn’t just an education program, Curry said. “It focuses on making all relationships, not just relationships with students, any relationship you have more meaningful,” she said.

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