School district implements a curriculum to help students learn the value of kindness, service and empathy

PHOTO COURTESY OF GRAYSON MUNN AND JAKE HUFFMAN  - Crook County Middle School and Crook County High School staff and district board members attended a CharacterStrong workshop earlier this month that focuses on servant leadership. They participated in a team-building exercise.

The whole child, servant leaders and CharacterStrong are becoming buzz words in the education field lately.

Research shows that when a school takes time to cultivate a culture of character and develop social-emotional skills, students' grades go up and bad behavior goes down.

That movement is gaining momentum in the Crook County School District.

On Monday, March 4, all Crook County High School and Crook County Middle School staff attended a CharacterStrong workshop.

"The purpose of the workshop is to reflect upon current school culture and student/staff relationships, then consider how we can increase our impact in serving students through our interactions, connections and rapport with each other," explained CCMS Principal Kurt Sloper. "This workshop will help our staff cultivate an environment where students want to be, feel accepted, and have a positive learning experience."

It was CCSD Superintendent Sara Johnson's idea to bring it to her new district.

While she was preparing to take on the superintendent role for Sumner School District in Sumner, Washington, in 2013, she heard about Sumner High.

"They had an amazing leadership program, and the students were an integral part of leading the school," Johnson said. "So I investigated it, and I found out that basically this was the work of this young teacher, John Norlin, and he was impacting the people in that school so much."

At the request of teachers throughout Washington, Norlin trained them in his work, which is centered around the book "The Servant" by James Hunter.

Johnson was so intrigued, that she attended one of Norlin's weekend trainings.

"It was about how to be a servant leader as an educator and how to bring the eight essentials into education," Johnson said.

Those eight essential character traits are kindness, honesty, patience, respect, humility, selflessness, forgiveness and commitment.

Johnson then reached out to the author, sharing just how impactful his work had been on Norlin and their district.

"He got back to me and said, 'I'd really like to meet this guy,'" Johnson recalls of Hunter.

So, the teacher got to meet the author. The two ended up collaborating and eventually even presenting together.

At Johnson's request, Norlin eventually began working in the district office in order to implement Servant Leadership district-wide. He received a grant and developed his curriculum into a web-based program.

"As soon as it got into that mode and people could actually access it, it took another big, huge jump," Johnson said, noting that at that point, it was branded CharacterStrong.

Eventually, Norlin left the school district in order to work exclusively for his new company.

 - John Norlin, who developed the CharacterStrong curriculum, led the workshop at CCHS.Today, CharacterStrong provides curricula and trainings for schools internationally. The trainings help educators infuse character and social-emotional learning into the daily fabric of any classroom or campus. The curricula focus on character development in order to help students cultivate social-emotional skills, and their emotional intelligence, and help them develop a stronger identity and purpose in school and in the world.

Aside from the advisory curriculum, CharacterStrong now offers leadership curriculum, a resource gym, educator trainings, professional development and CharacterStrong Athletics for coaches.

Johnson left Sumner and became Director of Assessment, Equity and School Improvement for the Klamath County School District in Klamath Falls in 2016. She helped bring CharacterStrong to that district with positive results.

When she came to CCSD last summer, she had in mind to implement the program here as well.

"It's an approach that has a tremendous positive impact on the culture in your school. It begins with adults and how they respond to students and interact with others, but it also involves leadership opportunities for students, and the theme is centered around character and servant leadership," Johnson said.

CCMS Assistant Principal Rocky Miner, who helped organize the local training, said, "The eight character traits are the main thread through CharacterStrong."

A handful of CCMS officials were so enthused that they took some training last summer and began implementing the program in the fall.

But Johnson wanted to bring it to the entire staff at the middle and high schools.

With district funding and funds from a private donor, Norlin came to Crook County last week to teach a CharacterStrong workshop, and a follow-up training is planned for June 14.

"He has incredible ways of getting people together to interact. He uses interactive tools such as webbing circles called Raccoon Circles. They do all kinds of interaction-type learning activities," Johnson said. "He's super charismatic."

The district has also brought CharacterStrong Athletics to Crook County. Scott Westering put on a workshop for district coaches and community members earlier this week.

"We want the common language for our kids, the consistent philosophy that athletics is more than athletic ability, but it's also your heart and your head and how to be that person that we want our kids to be," Johnson said.

Miner said the district plans to roll out CharacterStrong this spring.

"We are so excited about the CharacterStrong and the curriculum," he said. "The main focus is teaching the kids to be servant leaders."


The district is developing a three-year implementation plan, including:

Educator trainings

Professional development

School assembly

Advisory curriculum

Leadership curriculum

CharacterStrong Gym

An implementation fidelity rubric

Building capacity

Follow-up professional development

Making Kindness Normal assemblies

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