The Jefferson City Academic Center has been named a National School of Character. It is the first time an alternative school in Missouri has received the honor.
After Principal Deanne Fisher made the announcement over the intercom Tuesday, she could hear her students loudly cheer the news.
"You could hear them from the office," she said. "They have ownership in this, too, and that's part of the process."
The school won the award after undergoing a comprehensive application and interview process with faculty and students to determine the extent that CharacterPlus curriculum has shaped the school's culture.
The CharacterPlus program is designed to reinforce traits - ideals like honesty and responsibility - that are helpful not only in the workforce, but in life.
Many of the school's activities are designed with "character" in mind, Fisher said.
She noted recently the school's ninth and tenth graders, as part of Teacher Appreciation Week, were inspired to send thank-you notes to their instructors. Such intrinsic motivation, which also hones the students' writing skills, is thrilling to see, she said. The JCAC students also have been the recipients of thank-you notes from younger children they have mentored as part of the school's Service Learning program.
"They'll carry those notes around like gold," she said.
Last week, the school raised a banner celebrating the news that JCAC had been selected as a state School of Character. Winning that honor allowed the district to advance to the national competition. The Character Education Partnership, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., issued the award.
"It definitely is an honor, because there are about 100,000 schools in the nation. For the Character Education Partnership to narrow the list down to 35 finalists and 29 winning schools ... it's amazing," said Suzy Ward, who coordinates the School of Character process in Missouri.
About 140 students are enrolled at JCAC. Although most of them have experienced past difficulties in school, they had to pass an interview process to be allowed to study there. In exchange for smaller class sizes, flexible scheduling and more personal attention, the students must agree to give up bad habits like acting out at school and sleeping in class. Most importantly, they have to renew their commitment to their studies.
The waiting list to get into the program now is longer than the number of students enrolled.
Fisher said misperceptions about the school's academic rigor persist in the community, even though JCAC has been open several years now.
"Too many people don't believe it's an academic environment," Fisher lamented. "We have very smart kids. They can do it academically."
Fisher said her staff works with students to resolve their social and emotional issues first, so they can move on to conquering the academic material.
Helping students become more trustworthy is a primary goal.
"We want them to learn to do the right thing, even when no adult is standing over them," she said, adding that a bond of trust facilitates the work.
"You can get more out of a kid when you've established that mutual trust," she said.
Ward said JCAC will now be treated as a model school that other communities will want to learn more about.
She's already begun to hear about testimonies from families whose children are enrolled in JCAC and swear the school saved their kids' lives.
"They'll be a model for the whole country. They are going to be getting calls from people asking: "How did you do it?,'" she said.