Guidance in Growth: District OR-1 commitment to building character

Guidance in Growth: District OR-1 commitment to building character

By Tyler Dahlgren

NCSA Communications Specialist

There stands six pillars of character.

Trustworthiness. Respect. Responsibility. Fairness. Caring. Citizenship.

Pillars that, if upheld, can take a person into life’s far corners of success. Desirable traits on which Character Counts!, a Comprehensive Student Development Workshop (SDW), was founded.

Just past the outskirts of Lincoln along Highway 2, a pair of similar small towns combine to form District OR-1 Public Schools, a forward-thinking institution that has placed a high priority on character education with the implementation of a variety of programs.

What exactly is “character education”?

Students in Bennet and Palmyra could answer that for you. They are introduced at an early age. Their school is, in a way, built on those six pillars. Their education isn't just in science, math, reading or social studies. Their education is in integrity, and how to develop it.

Character education, by Thomas Lickona of The High School Magazine’s definition, is “the constellation of virtues, or objectively good human qualities a person possesses”.

From the moment each future Panther first walks through the entrance of Bennet Elementary as a preschool or kindergarten student, they are being groomed for the future.

Using “Second Step”, a research-based, best practice curriculum that reinforces the Character Counts! initiative, children in preschool and kindergarten learn to feel and identify their feelings, manage their emotions and apply problem-solving steps. It’s important to instill character early on, a concept that has been mutually agreed upon by elementary parents.

“As you can imagine, teaching character in the elementary school is crucial for success later on,” said Mike Chaffee, the K-12 School Counselor at District OR-1 schools. “The programs do so much to reinforce the values parents try to teach at home.”

Each month, the school holds a “Character Counts! Casey’s Student of the Month” assembly, events Chaffee refers to as “Character Pep Rallies”, and a display of must-see exchanges of support between students.

“What I love the best is that when the teacher reads a paragraph from the certificate highlighting why this student was chosen as student of the month, the kids cheer for them,” Chaffee said. “’Way to go, Evan!’. Afterward, they take a photo of the group to gather and celebrate that in the weekly and monthly newsletter.”

A gymnasium full of selfless, noble elementary students. How’s that for virtuous?


You could call Chaffee the orchestrator of District OR-1’s commitment to, as the school states, train each student to “successfully meet the challenges of the future.” He also coordinates the school’s involvement with Teammates, and, in addition to Character Counts! and Second Step, Chaffee introduced the “8 to Great” program to students at Palmyra High School.

All the way through eighth-grade, students obtain tools in empathy, communication, emotional management, goal setting and substance abuse prevention (among many other components) through roughly 145 weekly lessons in the Second Step curriculum.

“We are, of course, delighted to see our students arrive at the senior (high school) as solid students and citizens,” Chaffee said.

That’s the goal, but the work isn’t quite finished yet.

In high school, students are introduced to EducationQuest materials designed to increase awareness of college and career options for post-secondary planning. Chaffee calls 8 to Great an “excellent resource to encourage wisdom and personal accountability and reflection.” The program’s curriculum is built around eight highways, which are as follows:

1. Get the Picture (find your passion or dream)

2. Risk (what would you do if you had no fear?

3. Full Responsibility

4. Feel all of your Feelings

5. Honest Communication

6. Forgiveness of the Past

7. Gratitude for the Present

8. Hope for the Future


Freshman at Palmyra are introduced to all eight highways, but an emphasis is placed on the first four. As sophomores, Panthers dive into the final four highways, and also hear speakers from area businesses, colleges and military recruiters, all who stress the importance of having a post-secondary plan. Sophomores also take the StrengthsFinder inventory from Gallup and develop a life goal based on strengths.

Juniors stay just as busy, attending a college fair and venturing out for a campus visit as well as setting up a profile on the EducationQuest website and developing a resume for use in college and job applications. In the 11th-grade, the ASVAB test is given in November to further assist student career options.

By their senior year, District OR-1 students will have received 12 years of character education through a handful of proven-to-work programs. They’ll attend EducationQuest’s Financial Aid Workshop in November and be offered computer lab time to research and complete applications, whether it be for a college, job or scholarship.

They’ll be ready for the next step, and that’s the goal at District OR-1. The payoff for Chaffee and his colleagues is seeing their students walk down the pavement to the future equipped to handle life’s challenges. Pavement that Chaffee, the administration, and the educators of District OR-1 Public Schools worked hard to lay.

“When they are able to get into the college or program they have longed for, we celebrate with them, it’s one of the most rewarding parts of our job,” Chaffee said. “We assist our students with a variety of scholarship opportunities, so when they actually get a scholarship, we celebrate.”

College isn’t in the cards for everybody, so Chaffee said the school spends time talking to students about NOT going to college and is currently exploring the “Gap Year” and “how it can be a useful tool to help graduated students mature and find direction, as well as get ready for college.”

The allure of Nebraska’s public schools, Chaffee feels, lives in a unanimous, statewide mission.

“We educate every student in the community and turn none of them away,” he said. “For as long as Nebraska has been a state, the effort to educate all of the children has been supported by strong local support, progressive legislation with ongoing financial support, as well as a very strong Teachers Union that ensures our students are taught by qualified individuals.”