Character Works, Indeed: Broken Bow elementary students grow with added responsibilities

Character Works, Indeed: Broken Bow elementary students grow with added responsibilities



They sit around a conference table in Broken Bow’s North Park Elementary School, five calm and collected 6th-graders ready to field any questions that may come their way.

It’s Wednesday, so I break the ice with a “Hump Day” quip, which draws a couple of laughs. Common ground. We’re all just working for the weekend.

They’re about to be interviewed for a story featuring Character Works, a program they took part in a year ago as inaugural members. For many 11-year-olds, this situation might wreck some nerves.

Not these five. They remain as cool as the other side of the pillow.

This isn’t their first rodeo. It's not even their first formal interview.

The premise of Character Works is simple, and its roots stretch back to a conversation North Park principal Kim Jonas shared with the district’s Special Education Director, Nikki Altig, about the career readiness component of the state’s AQuESST (Accountability for a Quality Education System, Today and Tomorrow) plan.

“We got to talking and the question was asked ‘Do you remember when we had jobs, and how cool was that when you were the kids that got to go put up the flags?’” Jonas, who has been in her position at North Park since 2008, said.

Nostalgia sunk in, as the two harkened back to their elementary days.

Why couldn’t she recreate some of her childhood experiences and implement them at North Park? The answer was quite simple. She could.

“We were almost taking some responsibility away from our kids,” Jonas said.

It worked then. Why couldn’t it work now?

The school’s previous behavior program, “Kids of Character”, was in need of an overhaul, so, two summers ago, Jonas assembled a committee tasked with coming up with something fresh.

First-grade teacher Teresa Smith, with 14 years of experience at North Park, was one of the ground floor Character Works organizers.

“We took the good components of Kids of Characters, and then discussed ways that we could enhance them,” Smith said. “We set out to find a way to make expectations the same for everyone in the school.”

That was two summers ago. Character Works, now in its second full year, has helped bolster the school’s culture through an implementation of natural accountability, the contagious kind you form without even noticing.

Students start out each day with (a not real) $10, and earn the right to keep that “cash” by following the program’s behavioral structure, which was formed using the district’s four pillar words: Respect, Responsibility, Compassion and Integrity.

“Not only are they being good learners, but they are allowing everyone else to be able to learn,” Smith said of her students, who have overwhelmingly bought into Character Works. “We have a character pledge and part of that is to treat others how you want to be treated, and so this not only helps them as individuals in being good learners, but it is helping everyone in the classroom become good learners if they all follow the rules.”

Teachers keep track of their students’ earnings, and once a month Jonas opens up the “Character Works Store”, where students are able to spend their earnings on a variety of prizes, ranging from popcorn to toys to technology.

“Kids are learning about saving their money and spending their money, in addition to countless life skills through being a part of the program,” Jonas said.

Tanya Slagle is a second-grade teacher and also was a part of the original organizing committee. She enjoys seeing her students become excited about the program.

“I think they are proud,” she said. “We make a big deal of saying ‘You earned this!’ instead of saying ‘Nope, you lost a dollar because you didn’t do this or didn’t do that’. We make a big deal of them earning it, and they are pretty proud of that.”

Fifth-graders take a big step in Character Works. The metaphorical step out of early adolescence and into their pre-teen years. It’s their final year at North Park, before the time comes to take the very real step out of the elementary school and into Broken Bow’s big building, which houses grades 6-12.

Before making that leap, though, it’s time to get a job.

“We take them through an application process, and then they apply for one of the jobs, which are either a few minutes before school starts or during the last period of the day, which is our personalized learning period,” Jonas said. “We will have several kids come here into the office, they run notes, they fill the copier machines.”

The list of jobs available to fifth-graders is extensive.

Brandon Gamboa helped around the office and, before classes would let out, would check outside and across the street to see if any recess balls had strayed from the pack.

Emma Taylor was a communications liaison and office assistant.

Anna Chancellor was a communication liaison, technology assistant and classroom assistant.

“Some days kids get notes because they have to go somewhere special, so I would deliver those notes and packages,” she says.

Dakota Baum was an Honor Guard for three terms and spent one as a janitor assistant.

“With the Honor Guard, you have to be responsible and get there every day on time,” he says. “You have to make sure the flag stays upright and make sure it doesn’t hit the ground.”

Lilly Jonas  had jobs as a library and classroom assistant. She wants to be a kindergarten teacher someday. Character Works could end up being an early springboard to her future career.

“My supervisor was a kindergarten teacher, and she let me work with the kids and help with other stuff, too,” Lilly said.

They’re sixth-graders in a different building now, but those memories from being a part of the workforce are still fresh and pleasant to look back on.

“You had to be responsible, you had to wake up and get there on time and get your work done,” Chancellor, who someday wishes to become a marine biologist, recalls. “If you were gone, then you had to make up that work. And if your partner was gone, then you had to fill in for them.”

For the adults reading this piece, this concept likely sounds incredibly familiar.

The interview was, without a doubt, the most anxious part of the deal for last year’s Character Works 5th-graders. Job interviews keep 23-year-olds across the country tossing and turning late into the night, so how is a 10-year-old supposed to keep their cool?

“I have a couple of questions that I ask them, and then they are required to list references,” Jonas said. “I pick one reference to call, and I tell the kids that they need to know they’ve been listed.”

Parents get in on the process, too. One student last month had obviously been taught well, given the sturdy and professional handshake he addressed Principal Jonas with the day of their interview.

“He asked, with a very straight face, ‘Mrs. Jonas, how has your afternoon been today?” she recalls with a lighthearted laugh. “We have great parent support. They are always involved. We are very lucky.”

Jonas also notes the tremendous administrative support her staff receives at North Park. What they’re doing coincides with the district’s “Build character. Optimize learning. Widen opportunities.” acronym.

For a student, Broken Bow is a supportive place to grow, academically and as a person. Slagle went to school in Sargent, which is nearby, and was a lifeguard in Broken Bow.

“I got to work with the kids when they were little, and I was the boss of a lot of high school kids, and I always thought they were very respectable and just showed great character,” Slagle said. “I thought this would be a great place to be. I love it here. It is a great place to raise my family.”

The kids at Broken Bow are special. Uniquely insightful and welcoming, they’re proud of their school and they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished through Character Works.

“Going to school here in Broken Bow is really fun, and it has given me an opportunity,” said Gamboa. “I have Hispanic heritage, so my first language is Spanish. I am trying to learn English, and just last year I became proficient in the language.”

The North Park staff is eager to highlight its students’ successes. These former North Park students will just as quickly compliment their teachers, new and old.

“All the teachers at Broken Bow, whether you are at North Park or the middle school, they are all just super nice, and you just feel like you fit in,” Taylor, the lone 12-year-old of the bunch, said. “If you need help, they will always help you.”

I have one more question for the group.

“So when you’d get home at the end of a long day, would your parents ask you ‘How was school?’, or ‘How was work?’”

The five friends answer the question in unison.


The kids aced their first job interview over a year ago.

“(Character Works) taught us that you just can’t goof off or be a bad influence on the other kids,” Lilly Jonas said. “You just have to be responsible and look at it like a privilege because if you don’t get your work done and you’re not a good person for your job, then they can take it away and give it to the next person.”

The kids aced this interview today.

They surely seem to have a head start in preparing for the ones to come.