Vegetables, along with character, were being nurtured in Burgess Elementary School’s community garden Wednesday morning, as students took turns learning how to plant.
“What life skills are you using?” asked Principal Donna Hooks and teacher Angie Smith of each group as they gently dug holes with their fingers and dropped in sprouts of lettuce and cabbage they eventually will harvest and sample.
Some students gave the answer “responsibility” for helping plants grow, watering them and pulling weeds. Others responded with “patience,” “common sense” and “trying your best,” while some 4-year-olds added “integrity” because they stayed in line even when no one was watching.
“We infuse life skills in everything we do,” said Hooks of the school’s focus on character education, which began when it opened in 2007. “The mission of our school is to create students who are leaders and learners for a lifetime, and will be good citizens and productive members of society.”
Good character is put into action at each grade level through service learning projects, many of which are student-driven, and programs are refined from year to year. The school won the state’s Palmetto’s Finest Award in 2012, and its commitment to social and academic learning was rewarded last year with South Carolina’s School of Character award.
This year, the school has taken the national spotlight as one of 29 schools and districts to be named a 2013 National School of Character by the Character Education Partnership, and it will be honored at a national forum in Washington, D.C., Oct. 24-27.
Learning “the Burgess way,” as some of the students say, revolves around 18 life skills and five lifelong guidelines – active listening, no put-downs, personal best, trustworthiness and truthfulness.
“Winning affirms all the hard work you do every day, and it makes you really reflect on your practice,” Hooks said. “The point of the process isn’t the award, it’s to get better.”
This was the third time Burgess applied for this award, earning Honorable Mention the first year before winning at the state level last year. Guidance counselor Brianne Miller, who worked on the school’s application, said it’s good for the school to go through the process and have a goal to work toward.
“You don’t get complacent, and keep expanding and trying to make things better,” Miller said. “It’s been neat to watch the whole thing. The kids know about it, and you just keep embedding the skills into the fabric of the school.”
Burgess has a character education committee to help with ideas, which include Life Skills cards that students can parlay into lunch with the principal, and peace flags they create that are flown when there have been no disciplinary referrals in a day, Miller said.
Student projects include such things as the community garden, recycling and a “Turn Off Your Engine” campaign aimed at parents who let their cars idle in the school’s pick-up line. Students have come up with ways to help their community and those who suffer tragedies, such as the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Sandy, she said, including a fundraising idea from the second-graders to sell “lemon-aid.”
Hooks and Miller will be joined by teachers Jennifer Crawford, Pam Petty and Jill Dinkel on the trip to Washington, where they will present Burgess’ service learning practices to various breakout groups. The school’s “Scooter Goes to Work” program also will be honored as one of this year’s Promising Practices.
Scooter is a stuffed sea turtle, the school’s mascot, and he goes to work with a different parent each week, Miller said. This is the third year for Scooter, who carries a camera in his backpack, and he has been photographed in a variety of workplaces, wearing a Home Depot apron one week and working with a hospital X-ray technician the next.
Parents fill out a card telling the favorite part of their job and the life skills they use every day, Miller said. The information is turned into a script that their child shares in a pre-recorded video that is featured on the school’s morning show.
“Parents are really creative – Scooter rides in their cars, sits at their tables – it’s very impressive, and it helps us bring careers into focus, which is one of our standards,” said Miller, who has shared the idea with others in Horry County Schools who are coming up with their own versions of the program.
Scooter originally was a birthday gift for Hooks, who said she donated him to the program, but when he proved to be so popular, she turned to eBay to find his twin. The other Scooter is on a world adventure this semester with the family of Rob Young, a Coastal Carolina University professor who is spending a semester at sea, and will have a great tale to tell when he returns.
“He’s been everywhere,” Miller said. “He was at the Berlin Wall the other day.”