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Views from the Road

Character Core Team Visits Schools of Character

May 9, 2023

This Spring, the Character Core team from WGU Teachers College arrived in St. Louis, Missouri to visit the Center for Citizenship and Character at the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL) and tour three K-12 schools certified as National Schools of Character by This visit supported the Character Core Project mission to catalyze healthy learning and working environments and thriving communities by prioritizing character and character qualities in K-12, higher education, and workforce development. This article is by Character Core team members Amelia Azul Elgas and Owen Griffith.

Visiting Award-Winning Schools of Character

St. Louis and the surrounding region are a hub for character development in education.  Approximately twenty-five years ago, Sandy McDonnell, the CEO of McDonnell-Douglas, started funding character development and founded the organization Character Plus in St. Louis. He later established in Washington D.C. to empower and support character nationally. At the University of Missouri, St. Louis, McDonnell endowed a position and department to study character development in education. 

For our school visits, the staff from Character Plus planned a day for our team to visit schools awarded Regional and National Schools of Character by These school visits provided a window into how character is applied successfully and sustainably in schools by becoming an integrated part of the culture of the school and community. At these schools, instead of character development being something that teachers feel is added to their overflowing plates, character becomes the plate. In doing so, everyone involved stands a better chance of not only academic success but also life success and thriving.  

Mehlville High School

As Mehlville High School principal Jason Landherr started our tour we were immediately faced with placards on the walls speaking to four character priorities at that school:

1. Responsibility

2. Relationships

3. Respect

4. Inclusivity

Principal Landherr shared that these four character qualities were an update to the previous ones: respect, rigor, relevance, relationships, and results.  

Student and staff collaborations resulted in the iteration with students especially interested in creating an intentional focus on belonging by addressing inclusivity in a school where multiple languages are spoken. 

It became clear how highly the school values student voice – something that consistently displays in successful character-focused schools. Signs throughout the school served as powerful reminders in everything from hallways to classrooms, cafeterias, and even restrooms. Additionally, a bulletin board invited students to put post-it notes with their own voices of how they are embodying the four character priorities.


Our stops in three classrooms found students deeply engaged in learning using a variety of modalities beyond a teacher lecturing at the front of the class.

In our first classroom, an interactive lesson involved students moving around the room and sharing knowledge with one another. The teacher had strategically assigned them roles to expand their capabilities - notetaker, advocate/facilitator, and explainer. She encouraged the quieter students who might ordinarily shy away from speaking up to be notetakers and then to try being explainers. She encouraged outspoken students to encourage other students as advocates and facilitators.

In our second classroom, students sat in pods with an advisor and focused on topics of interest in a collaborative learning style. Students were quietly working on self-directed research projects. The walls of this room were covered with student masks with the outside of each mask showing the face the student presented to the world. On the inside of the masks, each student pasted images of their internal world including things that were important, things that caused stress, and more personal statements.

To be able to celebrate their character and share where they struggle and where there is confusion is an essential part of developing character. Being able to feel safe doing this with the guidance of a teacher, and in collaboration with peers, can be the foundation to establish the kind of growth that allows students to achieve not just academically, but in all the tests of life, as they explore who they are and develop their essential and authentic selves.

Mehlville Success Stories

Integrating character into the entire school community can benefit academic and personal growth and well being of students. Mehlville has seen marked improvement from their work. 



60% showed an increase in self management and responsible decision making. 40% of students saw an increase in confidence and 33% showed an increase in grit and growth mindset. 



71% saw increase on group pre/post evaluation survey as all students showed a decrease in overall anger related behaviors and all students exhibited an increase in coping skills. 



71% showed an increase in well-being as evidenced by an increase on CHADS Mentoring Pre/Post survey. 


The masks hanging in the classroom at Mehlville show the forward, external face students project, while the inside of the mask allows them to show their innermost thoughts and feelings. 

As we were wrapping up the tour, we passed a group of students that invited us to the Black Student Union’s celebration of Black History Month, a collective celebration in song for all of those in the theater which visibly demonstrated a united community in the school. A reading by a young bi-racial woman shared how others commented on her beauty but didn’t see her pain inside. The vulnerability students in the school felt confident sharing spoke to the feeling of safety and support the school’s team successfully conveyed to each student. Throughout the tour we saw how Mehlville High demonstrates the priority that is given to character and how it pervades every aspect of the school’s culture, supporting and encouraging student success in all areas.

Windsor Elementary

In Windsor Elementary, our second school on the tour, each teacher had a quote displayed outside their door. One read: “Don’t compare yourself to others. There’s no comparison between the sun and the moon. They both shine when it is their time.”

As with Mehlville, character was deeply integrated into the school. Signs served as guideposts and reminders. Students were encouraged to contribute their voices to the signs by noting how teachers could empower them, how they could empower themselves, and reminders of when they had shown bravery. Dedicated rooms existed for support from a room where students could go reset themselves when they felt they needed to calm down, to a place for caregivers to spend time with children and take classes to improve their caregiving and academic support.

At one point in the hall was a sign that said, “I belong at Windsor Elementary. I am safe and loved. I can do hard things.” A student stopped our small group there to greet each of us with a hug. In the staff room their Pathways to Excellence Plan covered a wall and included concrete visuals of the objectives including service learning, restorative circles, surveys and other means to continuously focus on prioritizing character at the school.  

Premier Charter School

At our final stop at Premier Charter School, we saw similar character-focused practices but heard from the principal (herself a former teacher) Julie Frugo, about her focus on creating a healthy staff culture. She believes a healthy staff culture enhances student success, which was demonstrated in many ways from photos of smiling staff members at each building and bonding events including dinners, volunteer days, and other gatherings. The school has an onsite daycare facility to care for the staff’s young children as a further show of support.

Enhancing our Learning

Throughout our day, our Character Core team from the WGU Teachers College witnessed the positive outcomes of character focused schools in action. Integrating character at this level in a way that is sustainable and scalable is not easy. The Character Core Project team aims to take learnings from these tours and incorporate them into our project and professional learning programs: the Thriving Schools Professional Learning Program and the Character Focused Approach Framework. We look forward to a day when all schools are thriving communities of character and success. 

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