Windsor C-1 School District in Imperial, MO, has created a culture of character through the years. With multiple municipalities and a small city defining the school region, the school district has become the hub for the community. The district is approximately 30 minutes south of St. Louis, along the Mississippi River, and serves around 3,000 students. Whether at a game, a concert, a play, or a show, one thing is sure: Support will be huge, as this is our unifying purpose as a larger community. The district has been recognized as a State District of Character, and both Windsor High School and Windsor Elementary School have been named National Schools of Character. Windsor High School’s student council has been at the forefront of student-led character lessons and has been named a Missouri Gold Honor Council and National Gold Council of Excellence consistently over the past decade.

Superintendent Joel Holland notes, “When it comes to character, like many other traits that our children learn, most of the learning takes place in one’s formative years. This is typically done by observing the older children, whether that be at home or in the school environment. Older students have a wonderful and unique opportunity to share the positive traits of character and to make a positive impact upon our younger generations.”

Through the years, Windsor High School student council has built character education into its curriculum and schedule, and other groups, classes, and organizations share character education in the other buildings through service learning as well.

Small Steps, Big Impact

We did not always have a service learning program. In fact, it wasn’t long ago that our school was still learning what exactly “character education” was. Small steps, such as finding pre-established programs, became the starting point for our school. New leadership at the high school, composed of folks with a strong character education background, and an influx of new staff members provided the opportunity to define an identity. A collaboration with metro St. Louis schools in a character initiative called “Peaceball” provided a manageable step for the school to learn about character education. In Peaceball, students would go through various stations at which they participated in activities to promote character; these were lessons that we brought back to our own school.

By partnering with other schools, we started to see that character education was more than a scripted lesson plan—it should be about student-led activities. When funding ended for the joint project, the student council chose to continue the Peaceball project with the second-grade classes in the Windsor district. Since the beginning, student council members have gone to the elementary buildings each year to teach lessons about encouragement, compassion, respect, honesty, trust, responsibility, cooperation, listening, and courage. Greeting students with applause and high-fives, the student council begins a lesson in which students rotate through the stations and then receive a piece of yarn. The second graders come together to tell the high schoolers what they learned.

“I liked working with the big kids,” said Lucas, Windsor Elementary student. His classmate, Reed, explained, “I like learning all the important words and how I should act.”

Student council members then help the students tie the pieces of string together and roll them into a ball, symbolizing the connection they have in making sure to demonstrate character—hence the name Peaceball. After a rousing rendition of fun songs such as “Hey Burrito” and “You Can’t Ride in My Little Red Wagon,” the second graders leave to cheers and more high-fives, taking with them an admiration of the older students and a lesson that will stay with them for quite a while.

Windsor High School junior Grant Siegel, the student council treasurer, explains, “I noticed the students at the elementary school showed a ton of passion and enthusiasm during the activities. I was glad I was able to change the mindset of young students to become more positive and encouraging toward their peers. It reassured me to know that by doing that, I can make a difference in the future.”

Carnival of Character

Peaceball provided a launching point for our high school student council to include student-led character education outreach. Instead of relying on counselors and teachers, the student council itself leads transition lessons to upcoming middle level students, which has a two-fold impact: First, young adolescents are learning from the high schoolers, which is a great leadership experience for the older kids. Second, the younger kids see their future selves in the roles modeled for them. We call this student-led outreach the “Carnival of Character.”

The Carnival of Character is not just a traditional transition lecture and handout. It is modeled after the big-top experience—having character as the main attraction, presented with the excitement of a traditional carnival. As the event is student-led and student-directed, student council members adapt the lessons each year to focus on the influence of peer pressure and challenges for kids as they enter the preteen years. The officers explain the day’s schedule and what they want the younger students to understand. Last year, student council members provided them a sack lunch in the garden and three different activities: Students could design a rock for the kindness garden, write a thank-you note to their teachers, or make a personalized button to promote a positive idea.

Senior Drew Wallace shares, “I noticed that the kids became happier and were really glad to be there. I could see that I made their day by sharing my activity with them on how they can become better people. It was super fun to be a part of their experience.”

Lessons on empathy, social media use, accountability, honesty, and self-discipline lasted only eight minutes, so each one required student council members to be direct and succinct. The final transition brought the fifth graders to an old-fashioned carnival, complete with a duck pond, face-painting, beanbag toss, and a can knock-down activity. To complete the event, the entire group met together to debrief and have a class competition, during which the students showed encouragement and positivity to classmates in head-to-head battles in games such as Rock-Paper-Scissors. While having fun, our incoming middle level students learned from the older students that they are not alone when facing today’s challenges.

Making a Lasting Impression

As our student council leads activities such as Peaceball and Carnival of Character, the lessons they learn make them aware of who they are in the world and their capacity to make change. As Assistant Principal Rachel Montgomery explains, “I think our high school students have the same experience with the younger kids as all educators have when their own students experience the ‘lightbulb’ moment—it is one for the books!”

Windsor High School student council Vice President Mercedes Moravec agrees. “The pride I feel in my council and myself after putting on an event like Carnival of Character is a feeling that is not easily replicated,” she says. “Whether the fifth graders know it or not, this day is just as exciting for us as it is for them. Seeing their eagerness to learn, their pure joy over the simplest games, and their unwavering kindness toward one another could teach any high school student a thing or two.”

Character education is sustained by our student council, with new ideas, new perspectives, and new energy as new students move into leadership roles. Windsor High School Principal Jason Naucke elaborates on the culture of character that the student council has shaped in the building: “I once saw a sign that hung in a school that read, ‘We learn not for school, but for life.’ At Windsor High School, I always think of that quote when we engage in activities such as our Carnival of Character, Peaceball, and service learning opportunities.

“In today’s public education [system], students are under a constant barrage of pressure to excel in their curricular course load. I believe that it is equally important to frame that learning in not only the reasoning behind what they learn, but also how to use knowledge and skills to better the community around them.”

This is no longer a teacher initiative, but student culture. Character education at Windsor High School has transformed our culture, how we are structured, and our vision for the future. More than a decade ago, a small team of teacher leaders, parents, community leaders, and administrators initiated “The Windsor Way”—the core values of compassion, honesty, self-discipline, respect, responsibility, and positive attitude. This way has now been embraced by the entire district.

The tremendous outcome, which was not anticipated so many years ago, was that the students would take this banner and make it their own. We are now seeing kids who once participated in Peaceball as second graders and in Carnival of Character as fifth graders go on to become student council members. The students’ self-proclaimed lifestyle of service learning demonstrates how the foundational character education has built more than we ever imagined, which is the story we wish to share. We are changing the world—The Windsor Way.

JoAnn Marty is student council adviser at Windsor High School in Imperial, MO. Julie Schubert is the curriculum coach at Windsor High School.

Sidebar: Getting Started

Interested in starting a similar character education program with your chapter or council? Here are some simple steps:

  • Start small and have fun.
  • Consider character values when starting new projects.
  • Build a district-wide network.
  • Reach out to other schools and local resources.
  • Have students design the lessons, practice with each other, and refine.
  • Provide opportunities for your students to share their character education experiences with others.