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Sometimes, the kids playing kickball on the playground of Rawson Elementary School in South Milwaukee get into arguments over whether someone was safe or out. Or whether someone did or did not touch a base. They don’t always handle their differences in the nicest way.

Behavior at the school? “It’s not perfect,” one fourth-grader told me when I visited just as the school year was coming to an end.

But I am not here to criticize. In fact, my purpose is to praise Rawson and the other five schools in the 3,200-student South Milwaukee district for the bigger picture of how people treat each other (adults and students both).

South Milwaukee schools have been working for seven years on a broad effort focused on building the character traits of everyone involved in the schools and making school life as conducive as it can be to success both in academics and, in broader terms, daily life.

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That led to South Milwaukee being named a “national district of character” this year by Character.org, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes and assists efforts to make character education part of what schools do. South Milwaukee is one of only four districts nationwide to receive the recognition.

There also were 83 schools named “national schools of character” this year. One was Greenwood Elementary in River Falls.

I like character education for two simple reasons:

One is that there are so many schools where the atmosphere created by the way people treat each other impedes education. This goes not only for how kids act but for how adults in the school sometimes treat kids — and other adults. (I’ve witnessed these things.) So much class time in so many schools is taken up with behavior problems. More broadly, a positive school culture leads to more positive outcomes.

The other is that I am convinced the well-designed efforts around character and conduct can make differences. It is possible to create a more positive atmosphere in a school. Intentional efforts around character education can be a part of that.

South Milwaukee offers strong evidence of two of the most important traits of a successful character program: persistence and pervasiveness.

As I said, the district just finished its seventh year of promoting character. (That also happens to be how long Rita Olson has been superintendent, which is not a coincidence.)

Character-ed is sometimes treated by schools as a fad. It will be promoted for a year or two and then things move on to some other idea for handling behavior or climate. But South Milwaukee has stuck with it and regularly reviews what it’s doing in search of ways to improve.

Five character traits

And the district’s character-ed efforts are not limited to posters on the wall. Yes, there are posters in classrooms throughout the district, promoting the five traits the character program emphasizes: respect, kindness, responsibility, honesty and perseverance.

But there is a lot more going on than that. The emphasis on character traits shows up in most every facet of the school. Olson said that when someone from character.org visited the district a few months ago, the person was struck by how pretty much anyone, down to the youngest kids, knew the traits and expectations and bought into them.

Natalie Patrick, a veteran fourth-grade teacher at Rawson, said she had seen a lot of change for the better since the character push started. The messages are integrated into the whole day, she said, and teachers emphasize character consistently.

That includes offering lessons in how to react to frustrations and solve problems, including differences with others. The district has growing efforts to increase empathy for others through public service projects.

South Milwaukee isn’t doing anything particularly unique.The schools have adopted ideas from elsewhere, such as a program called Second Step to promote social skills and “buddy benches” on playgrounds, aimed at creating places where students who may be feeling isolated socially can find others to play with.

“We’ve grown so much,” Patrick said. “It makes a huge difference.”

The half dozen fourth-graders I sat down with were fans of the character emphasis, overall.

“I like the kindness character,” one said. Honesty is good, too, she added. Another said, “It helps, with all the rules around here,” like how to behave while walking in the halls.

One said he thought the school deserved national recognition because there was a lot less bullying than at other schools.

Would they change anything? One fourth-grader said she’d like gum-chewing to be allowed, at least on some days.

Is there evidence the effort is working? Colin Jacobs, the principal of Rawson and a leader in the district’s character push, showed statistics on such things as improved attendance and reduced suspensions. The numbers weren’t overwhelming, but they were good.

A lot of the impact is intangible. Support on that level appears high. South Milwaukee Mayor Eric Brooks was visiting the school while I was there. He is a fan and said he has seen improvement in the way students treat others while out in the community.

Olson, the superintendent, said South Milwaukee is a low-spending district overall, so the character program “has to be grounded in the grassroots efforts of everybody.”

“This doesn’t take a lot of money,” she said.

Character-ed definitely does not solve all issues kids (or adults) have. But done well, it’s a step to making classrooms and schools better places to learn. South Milwaukee deserves appreciation for its work to show that.

As for conduct on the kickball field, Principal Jacobs says that getting students to talk together on ways to improve that might well be a good idea for next year.

Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at alan.borsuk@marquette.edu.

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