Integrating Character-Focused Practices into Schools

While strong academic results are a critical component of locally responsive, equitable schools, BES believes that virtue, ethics, and character are equally as vital to preparing students for success in college and career, and for a lifetime of opportunity. In fact, character formation and academic achievement go hand in hand, and schools of character have higher achievement results. Without a focus on both, our goals to ensure students can thrive in college, career, and life cannot be achieved.

In 2019, BES began work to more intentionally integrate character into our Fellowship, Follow On Support (FOS), and Leaders for Emerging Networks of Schools (LENS) programs, which currently support approximately 75 leaders annually, by studying the most effective practices of exemplar schools of character and analyzing the research and frameworks in the field of character formation. Currently, we’re seeking two leaders to take part in the 2021 BES Fellowship to build and lead schools rooted in character and human development.

Our team has been hard at work supporting leaders to lead schools with equity and character at the forefront. Here’s a look at how BES has worked to incorporate character formation into our core programs this year, and the lessons we’ve learned along the way from leaders and schools across the US.


Studying exemplar schools and character-focused practices

Our 2020-21 LENS leaders and 2020 BES Fellows had the opportunity to virtually study 14 schools across the U.S. that have a strong focus on character formation. Leaders virtually observed classrooms, meetings, and activities and analyzed artifacts to understand how identity, values, and character are taught and embedded in each school. 

Forte Prep, founded by 2015 BES Fellow Graham Browne in Queens, NY, was one of the schools leaders studied this year. At Forte, students begin each day in advisory when they set goals for the week and learn about character. Many of the school’s STRIVE values (service, team, resilience, integrity, voice, and excellence) are rooted in the South African ideal “Ubuntu,” the very essence of being human. Through Ubuntu, students learn that an individual can only be excellent when everyone is truly excellent. 

Leaders also studied Laureate Academy in Jefferson Parish, LA, founded by 2013 BES Fellow Claire Heckerman. BES leaders observed how Laureate’s staff model excellent character for their students by demonstrating respect and appreciation for one another during a Friday celebration meeting.    


Lessons learned from leaders working to integrate character into their schools

Though our learning continues, BES has gleaned a great deal from leaders and experts in the character development field. The following lessons learned highlight our major takeaways.

Consider your unique community needs. Schools can and should adapt frameworks to their own communities, and ensure that their approach to character is culturally responsive and reflects the strengths and values of the community. 

Approaches to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are not antithetical to character formation. In fact, the absence of an intentional focus on DEI to the detriment of students, staff, and the community are counter to the goals of character, namely individual and societal flourishing across lines of difference. DEI and SEL can be incorporated into a whole-school transformation plan for character formation and may mitigate fractured buy-in. 

Integrate character throughout adult and student culture. Those schools that make significant progress embrace character in everything they do. Approaches that are not fully integrated into the school model, ignore adult or student culture, or are only programmatic additions, don’t often lead to deep development of character at a personal or systemic level.

This year, school leaders and teachers were under tremendous stress and we heard many stories of fatigue and burnout. These anecdotes for us underscored the importance of focusing on character and culture for students and adults. Schools should prioritize character development of teachers and building adult capacity to support student character formation. 

Incorporating character development isn’t an extra; it’s essential. Ensuring students have the capacity and space to think critically about the moral and ethical challenges we face at every level of society, as well as their unique contexts and life experience, is necessary to help them develop the practical wisdom necessary to make good decisions in every situation.


Incorporating character development into BES coaching & training

Beginning this year, BES Fellows are selecting and integrating their chosen character formation framework as a component of their school model. This includes school values, school and classroom rituals, adult culture, and more.

To do this, Fellows took part in a virtual learning day that included an overview of frameworks for character formation with the respective experts, so they could accurately assess which framework best fit their intended school model and community. Fellows also participated in a four-part training with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to learn how to lead schoolwide SEL implementation at their proposed schools.

To support founders in their planning year and first two years of operation, BES Follow On Support coaches developed a new leadership competency model and program scope and sequence for years 0-2, all in response to leader feedback as part of BES’s efforts to root our coaching in anti-racist practices. Outcomes include founders’ ability to name their vision for character development that ties to academic results; and effectively hire, train, and support teachers to implement character education within their schools.

In addition to virtual school studies, 2020-21 LENS leaders took part in a training on how teachers and leaders promote character development and heard from Lagra Newman, 2011 BES Fellow and Founder of Purpose Prep in Nashville, TN, and Shauna Russell, Purpose Prep’s Director of Academics. BES leaders learned how the school revised its social studies curriculum to be socially conscious and support its students, the majority of whom are Black, to develop a strong sense of self and agency. We look forward to continuing this work with our 2021-22 LENS cohort.


Over the past year, BES has been examining and revising our organization’s core beliefs about what makes an excellent school and an excellent leader, and how we define and measure student success. These beliefs have driven the priorities laid out in our 2020-2023 strategic plan and informed our leadership training and coaching, supporting leaders to lead locally responsive, equitable schools. We’re grateful for the generous support of The Kern Family Foundation that allows us to support BES leaders and their teams.