Learning character at a young age

The Southwest Early Childhood Center earned a groundbreaking award Wednesday when it was named a “Missouri State School of Character.”

The honor makes Southwest the first early childhood school in the nation to ever receive such a designation.

Principal Nicole Langston said her staff spent hours trying to show others that even the smallest children can comprehend ideals such as honesty, kindness and trustworthiness. In the Jefferson City Public Schools, 11 principles have been identified as worthy of emphasis.

Based in St. Louis, CharacterPlus was started in 1988 by a concerned group of educators, parents and business leaders who felt something needed to be done to reverse the deterioration of basic values. Suzy Ward — coordinator of the School of Character process in Missouri — said 3,000 schools could have applied for the award, but only two did.

“They didn’t feel ready to apply for it,” she explained, noting that Jefferson City is on the cutting edge. “They are making history because they are opening the door for every other school in the country to try new, best practices and pursue this recognition.”

The CharacterPlus program typically is targeted at the upper grades. But Langston said children of all ages can benefit from the curriculum.

She noted her staff teaches accountability by asking kids to feed the classroom pet. The school emphasizes polite manners by hosting a tea party where the students practice saying “please” and “thank you” while listening to live symphonic musicians. They encourage students to be more honest by sharing Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried “wolf.” Visits from police officers emphasize values such as motivation and hard work.

By winning the award, Jefferson City is now a model school to be emulated, Ward said.

Southwest operates the Jefferson City Public School District’s Title I preschool. Langston believes the CharacterPlus initiative is helping those parents who didn’t personally have a positive school experience value education.

“By receiving this recognition,” she said, “it’s showing that our climate and culture is getting so much better. Where some of our parents used to have a negative vibe about school, now they feel so much more positive. We couldn’t ask for more than that.”

Many of her students come from homes where food isn’t always available and the heat isn’t always turned on, she said. Langston feels the program gets at the root of issues that prevent students from being academically successful as they grow up.

“You cannot reach academic goals unless a student’s social and emotional needs have been taken care of first,” she said.

The Southwest Early Childhood Center houses numerous programs, including: the Title I pre-school, the Early Childhood Special Education Department, Parents As Teachers, the EER gifted program and services for teenage parents.

“CharacterPlus is an umbrella that connects all of our six programs,” Langston added.

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