SAN FRANCISCO - Over more than a decade, character education became a way of life at Sentinel Career and Technology Center.
Hank Elchert, superintendent of Calvert Catholic Schools, was Sentinel's director when he broached the idea of character education.
Bob Brickner was superintendent of Vanguard-Sentinel Career and Technology Centers when Elchert said he wanted to develop a character education program at Sentinel.
"It was something new statewide," he said.
Brickner said he gave Elchert his blessing and told him to explore it and implement it if he felt it was a worthwhile program. Home schools are sending Sentinel students with good character, and it is being expanded during their time at Sentinel, he said.
"They send us their students, and these are good kids that are coming to Sentinel," he said.
Elchert applied for a two-year, $10,000 grant and said it took a great deal of work.
He had to survey people to see whether a character education program was needed, so he sent surveys to families and community leaders.
More than three-fourths of those surveyed said character education was something Sentinel should teach.
Elchert's grant application was approved in the spring of 1999. The school board was required to match the grant, so Sentinel had $20,000 to spend on implementing character education practices.
The grant helped fund a lesson plan project and T-shirts.
Elchert said Sentinel's instructors were divided into teams based on the pillars of character education, and the groups made lesson plans. The six groups each provided six lesson plans for a total of 36, the number of weeks in the school year.
Elchert asked instructors to teach character education for 45 minutes once a week. The program was met with resistance, as it was viewed as another thing instructors had to do. He said he was told character education was the parents' responsibility - not that of instructors.
Elchert, who is starting a character education program at Calvert, persevered and said if students don't have it at home and Sentinel is the last opportunity for students to learn about character education, instructors were going to teach it. They were going to do what no one else was doing, he said.
"They bought into that," he said.
When character education was being implemented, Elissa Heal, now director of Sentinel, was teaching in its agriculture program and working with FFA members.
"We started in small groups, and we helped to come up with lessons based on the six pillars of character education," she said.
Heal was in the group that focused on citizenship. Members organized an event for students and staff that included people involved in law enforcement, law and public safety.
"We put on an assembly for the students," she said.
Elchert said once character education started, the staff could see the good things happening. The program started steamrolling.
"(The) administration bought into it," he said.
Elchert said it took three to four years for character education to become part of the culture at Sentinel.
While Sentinel's character education program initially was a staff-level initiative, now there is a great deal of student involvement. Heal said the entire staff is on board with character education.
Another way the program has changed from when it started is the administration asks every staff member and every student to understand the six pillars of character along with Sentinel's motto, which is "Character Counts! 24-7."
The facility had been teaching and practicing character education, but Heal said people wanted to infuse it daily into the school's culture. They started focusing on teamwork within the various groups in the school.
The program is infused in all parts of Sentinel's operation - including discipline.
If a student is called to the office for a disciplinary issue, the administration discusses which pillar was violated. The student is asked to work on a character education lesson in the Student Success and Behavioral Enhancement Program and is required to prepare a reflection about the pillars, Heal said.
Heal said infusing character education into instruction daily decreased discipline problems substantially.
According to Sentinel's National School of Character application, the number of truancies decreased by more than 46 percent, from 43 when student enrollment was 444 in 2000-01 to 23 in 2008-09, when enrollment was 469. Also, out-of-school suspensions decreased by 67 percent, from 52 in 2000-01 to 17 in 2008-09. The school had an average attendance rate of 94 percent from 2004 to 2009, according to the application.
The district's financial commitment to character education has continued also.
Jay Valasek, treasurer of Vanguard-Sentinel, estimated $5,000 to $10,000 is spent annually on character education at Sentinel.
He said Heal budgeted $6,325 out of $14,000 in a student incentive line item within the general fund to be spent on character education this school year. He estimated the district earmarks $1,000 out of its donation account, which contains donations from the community, toward character education, as well.
Heal said it doesn't take a lot of money to have a good character education program.
"It does take a lot of learning and practice," she said.