'Character Counts' builds momentum in Storm Lake

Monday, January 21, 2002

Following a visit to a strong Character Counts program in Fort Dodge this month, the excitement for a character education program in Storm Lake continues to grow.

Pat Cowan, Community Education director, told the Storm Lake School Board this week about a trip to see first-hand the Fort Dodge Character Counts program and how it was implemented and carried out throughout that community.

Chris Nolte, CEO of the Storm Lake Chamber and Area Development Corporation, and Ann Mackrill-Wilson, marketing director at Buena Vista Regional Medical Center, also attended the trip.

Character education is of interest to the Storm Lake School Board, which heard a presentation last month about the Character Counts program from the Institute for Character Development, Drake University.

Character Counts started in Fort Dodge two years ago through the Community Action Network, an organization formed by Trinity Regional Hospital.

The Storm Lakers' visit to Fort Dodge showed them the excitement that surrounds Character Counts there.

"People were so enthusiastic about the program they wore us out before we were through there," Cowan told the board.

The vision of the Fort Dodge effort impressed Cowan.

"They didn't say this was a school effort," she said. "It is a community effort."

Nolte said he was very impressed with the trip to Fort Dodge.

"I wholeheartedly support further investigation of the implementation of the program in Storm Lake," he said. "I think the business community would be very much in favor of hiring employees who embody the six pillars of character."

Character Counts is one of the more popular character development programs. It provides a framework for an entire community to best demonstrate the six pillars: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

Cowan said a steering committee was first formed in Fort Dodge. Once it was decided to proceed with the program, a "dynamic" leader was hired for 15 hours a week to lead it. That director is paid through the Community Action Network, which is funded through the hospital, Cowan said.

Cowan said it is interesting to see how different people in Fort Dodge have jumped on board. The owner of the Fort Dodge Ford dealership has made a substantial commitment to the program and has marketed the six pillars throughout the community to increase recognition of the program. He has also used the six pillars in hiring new employees and for current employee reviews, she said.

A logo to represent Fort Dodge's Character Counts program was developed, and the city and police department have embraced it, placing it on all city and police vehicles.

Also, a new playground project in Fort Dodge will have equipment designed to represent the six pillars of the Character Counts program.

While the Character Counts program has been in Fort Dodge for two years, Cowan said it has not been brought to the schools until this month.

"They wanted the community to be committed before they went to the schools," she said. "If parents are talking about it, then the school is a natural."

Other communities have implemented Character Counts first in the schools. "It's all how you want to frame the program in an individual community," Cowan said.

Cowan said there are several areas the Storm Lake School Board needs to address before starting a character education program:

* Whether to start the program in the community or in the schools.

* Who will serve as the leader.

* Whether the climate of Storm Lake and the school district is ready for such a program.

* What sort of funding is available for the program.

Cowan said no one group is ready to dive into the program yet in Storm Lake.

"Unless everybody and major entities buy in and commit, it's not off to a good start and will not succeed," she said.

A concern, Nolte said, is how to implement such a program without placing the burden on any one group.

"It provides a good, strong foundation to not only children, but adults," Nolte said.

School Board President Mark Schultz suggested to Cowan that Community Education should form a steering committee to serve as the point organization to "get the ball rolling," he said.

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