In 2008, Guilford County Superintendent Maurice “Mo” Green started “Mo wants to know,” a listening and learning tour in his district as a way of finding out how to improve education for his students.
Out of that came a transformative project that focused on character development for Guilford youth — one that has paid strong dividends.
“What he did was he talked to our students, he talked to our school staff, he talked to community members, everyone, to just find out what did they identify as what is missing in our educational opportunities that we are providing to our students,” said Charlos Banks, executive director for student services and character development in Guilford County Schools.
Out of those talks came two clear goals: to increase academic outcomes and increase positive student behavior, and that led to a strategic plan focused, in part, on character education.
One of the best ways to do that, the district found, was through service learning opportunities. Officials began an initiative to get students involved in activities that would teach them about their community and the world.
“Young people are identifying ways to become active in providing and showing core ethical values, as well as how to be a citizen within their society,” said Yvonne Foster, coordinator for character development and service-learning in Guilford County Schools.
One way the students found to serve the community was to find bus stops without shelter and benches and raise the money to build them. Students who participated were keen to do so, particularly since some of them come from families that rely on buses for transportation.
Another project involved the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011. Students learned about it by interviewing people with connections to the disaster and then coming up with ways to help the still struggling communities that were affected.
“They’re not only able to support our local area, but you’re also thinking about globally,” Foster said.
The results of these projects extend beyond the work itself. Students grow as a result.
Thanks in part to the character education, student achievement has grown in the district. The graduation rate last year was at its highest: 88.5 percent. In 2013, eight district high schools had rates between 90 and 99 percent, and in 2014, 14 schools had graduation rates between 90 and 99 percent and seven had 100 percent.
Discipline problems have also been curbed in the district. Between the 2007-08 school year and 2012-13, the district experienced a 24 percent reduction in out of school suspensions. In fact, in 2012-13, 93 percent of students didn’t receive an out of school suspension.
And Guilford has been recognized nationally for its work. In 2013, the district was one of three in the nation named a district of character.
Guilford County has found that student excellence isn’t simply a result of in-classroom learning, but also a more holistic approach that looks to improving the whole person and integrating them in the community.
“As we look at our students and how we best educate them, we definitely want to continue the academic rigor, but also how do we develop our students as active members of our society,” Foster said.
And the model is Superintendent Green himself. As school districts around the state struggle financially, he has turned down salary raises. Students need look no further than the head of their district to see what character education is all about.
Editor’s Note: Mo Green is on the board of directors of EducationNC.