Jonas Salk Middle School Principal John Zampaglione recalled that when the district launched the RISE character education program in 2006, administrators suggested that teachers incorporate the concepts of respect, integrity, safety and staying healthy, and empathy into their lessons. More than a decade later, he said, those words are used daily in classrooms throughout the Levittown school, and plastered on bulletin boards around the building.
Zampaglione said that the community’s commitment to the program has helped Wantagh, Seaford and Levittown students, parents and teachers to complete hundreds of charity projects, learn about one another and come together in new ways. The program’s success extends to the national level, as Salk was recognized last fall as a National School of Character — one of only 68 across the county chosen by Character.org.
Assistant Principal Patrick Mulligan — the chairman of the RISE Committee and the program’s cheerleader, Zampaglione said — explained that a school normally needs to be honored as a State School of Character three times before being considered for national recognition. Salk has made only one appearance on the state list.
“We are extremely proud of this year’s designated schools and districts for their dedication to character development, which has proven to increase the well-being of so many students’ lives across the United States and beyond,” Becky Sipos, Character.org’s president and CEO, said in a press release. “These character initiatives create conditions for learning where students are thriving and growing into ethical members of our society. They are developing lifelong skill sets they will leverage well into their adult lives.”
After Salk administrators submitted an application, a representative of Character.org visited the school, walking around and talking to teachers and students.
According to the Levittown School District, Salk received the honor because the RISE program has had a positive impact on academics, student behavior and school climate. Zampaglione noted that in 2006, 12 percent of the student body was suspended or disciplined, but since the program launched, the average has dropped to 4 percent.
“A lot of it has to do with the messages and these values,” he said. “We really promote positive behavior and reinforce what kids are doing right.”
Mulligan said that the program teaches students to embrace one another’s differences and to treat others with kindness. “The program should not be confused with an anti-bullying program,” he said. “Instead, it is a program that teaches students the right way to behave and treat others.”
In addition to crafting lessons that incorporate the RISE tenets, teachers show a motivational clip from YouTube every Monday morning. The initiative also incorporates a RISE award program. The honors are given to students who have performed acts of kindness for others in the school.
Lisa Poggioli, a math teacher and member of the RISE Committee, noted that children receive awards in their classrooms. That way, they are recognized in front of their peers and encouraged to continue doing good.
Kirsten Anderson, a librarian at the school, said that students have been inspired to raise funds and start charity collections because of the program. They are encouraged to take part in community service projects with faculty and staff, she added.
During the National Forum on Character Education in October in Washington, D.C., Salk also received the a Best Practice Award, which commended the school’s implementation of the Challenger League, an athletic league for students with autism and other disabilities who compete against their peers from other districts.
The league has one Homecoming basketball game each year, featuring performances by the band and cheerleaders, as well as guest speakers. Zampaglione said that students and parents pack the gym to support the participants and write positive messages on a sign-in sheet and banners.
Salk also has a Buddy Club, which pairs students with autism and general-education students for games and socializing. Patricia Kolodnicki, a special-education teacher, said that students are always ready, willing and excited to spend their lunch hours with their peers to make them feel at home at Salk.
Members of the RISE Committee say that the character education program has evolved with the help of input from parents at PTA meetings and local Scout leaders. Zampaglione said that the “complete buy-in” from the community and the staff have made the program successful.
Kolodnicki added that, above all else, Salk teachers have learned how important a role they play in students’ lives. “Middle school is a great time to make mistakes and learn from them,” she said. “Our job is to facilitate that growth in a positive way.”