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Apollo Beach Elementary earns national recognition

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image This month, guidance counselor Valerie Dickson travels to Washington, DC, for a ceremony to recognize the school as a National School of Character. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Character matters at Apollo Beach Elementary School and a program more than a decade in the making, helped by staff and the community, earns a national award.

By Mitch Traphagen

Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.
— President Abraham Lincoln
Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.
— Albert Einstein
When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.
— Reverend Billy Graham

Character seems to be getting a short shrift in today’s world. Just take a look at our nation’s capital for an example, or the headlines of national financial news. Despite that, or, perhaps because of it, President Lincoln, Albert Einstein and Billy Graham knew exactly what they were speaking about in the quotes at right. Character matters. It matters to the individuals, it matters to a society and a community, and it matters to a nation.

More than a decade ago, Valerie Dickson, a guidance counselor at Apollo Beach Elementary School recognized the value of good character and knew that elementary school was the place to begin. Along with a handful of other staff members, they embarked on a program to build character among their students. That is not an overnight task, nor is it necessarily an easy one for already burdened teachers. But they knew it was important.

Over the years, the program grew and today, character is simply a part of the character of Apollo Beach Elementary School. The program that began all those years ago has been embraced by nearly the entire staff, from the janitors and cafeteria workers all the way to the administrative offices. But in that time, something even more amazing happened: the students have come to see good character as something that is cool.

Apollo Beach Elementary School was recently recognized for their efforts by the Character Education Partnership, a national nonpartisan advocacy group based in Washington, DC, dedicated to helping schools promote character development among students. The group named Apollo Beach Elementary as a National School of Character — it was the only school named in Florida and among a mere 29 schools receiving the honor nationwide. Having long demonstrated their commitment to character, the distinction will remain in place for five years, and the school will be held up as a model for other schools.

As with so many things, the building of a good character begins at home. But for young children, elementary school is where the lessons and example from home can be demonstrated and built upon in a public setting. For some young people, by high school or even middle school, it may be too late.

“The kids need that foundation,” Dickson said. “We started to identify certain things and we focused on those. The students were able to take responsibility. Everybody is talking about what it means to have character, it’s just a way of life here.”

And that way of life is based on simple concepts, known around the school as ABES: Act responsibly, Be Trustworthy, Exhibit Kindness, and Show Respect. Simple, perhaps, but other than home, where and how else could children learn about it, if not in school?

Character is not something that can be simply learned in books. It is taught by example and carried forth through dedication and perseverance.  All of which became a focus at the school.

 “This was a process,” Dickson said. “Everybody here is on board with this. It was something that started out small and now everyone is so excited about it, they have ownership in it. It makes everyone feel good.  This is something that we believe in and we are very proud of this.”

Perhaps most importantly, the children have taken ownership of it, too.

“None of the kids worry about whether or not it looks cool if they tell me the restrooms are messy,” Dickson said with a smile.

The greater Apollo Beach community has also signed on, making the effort far-reaching, extending to life beyond the school grounds. With suggestions from the school’s PTA, Dickson created signs tied to the school’s character program to distribute to local businesses.

“The kids will come in and say, “We saw a sign in Beef O’Brady’s last night!” related Dickson.

The power of taking lessons from school to the larger world cannot be underestimated and Dickson is grateful to area businesses for supporting their children and their futures.

“The parents have been supportive, the entire community has been supportive and the students have stepped up to be a part of this,” Dickson said.

Albert Einstein knew that making a great scientist requires a great character, something that could also be extended to making a great truck driver, office clerk, teacher, principal — or a guidance counselor. At Apollo Beach Elementary, the keys to success in later life have been given to the students with a program that began more than a decade ago and has expanded to involve the entire staff, the parents and the community. While the efforts made by the children cannot be overstated, the involvement of so many has resulted in success.  Winning the award was a rigorous process that involved everything from school visits to interviews with parents, students and teachers.

Later this month, Dickson will travel to Washington, DC to accept the National School of Character award on behalf of everyone at Apollo Beach Elementary.

“I am so excited,” she said. “I wish I could take everyone with me — all 650 of us going would be great.”

In a sense, they will be with her — character counts and in Apollo Beach, it is something that is being built with many hands. It is an award that recognizes and honors all of those hands. As Reverend Billy Graham alluded to, when you have character, you have everything.

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