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Conference highlights commitment to 'character'

Meyer Middle School Principal Mark Chapin has helped organize and prepare for a regional character education conference hosted by River Falls since last October. <i>Phil Pfuehler photo</i>

River Falls already has a reputation as a high-performing academic school district. So why bother with emphasizing character education?

Meyer Middle School Principal Mark Chapin said that when asked what makes someone successful in life, people invariably mention attributes like "compassion" and "perseverance" and "setting goals."

"It's these and other personal aspects that are always viewed as making a person successful," said Chapin, who heads the school district's character education steering committee that meets regularly. "It's about character traits, and not that a person is, say, such a good engineer.

"Our school district can have the best kids academically, but if we haven't taught them how to use that knowledge with integrity, then we've failed them."

The River Falls School District has joined with a network of school districts across Wisconsin and the country that blend "character education" concepts into the curriculum.

In River Falls, the topic is also discussed with students in small group settings and also promoted during presentations and skits at school assemblies.

River Falls has followed an established 11-principle formula to develop its own character education format capped by nine teachable traits: Courage, citizenship, compassion, cooperation, perseverance, positive attitude, respect, responsibility and honesty.

In an effort to help other area schools, River Falls will sponsor a two-day Character Education Conference on Thursday and Friday, Aug. 16-17, at the high school.

At least 10 other school districts, including Ellsworth and Spring Valley, will be sending educators.

Many teachers and staff from River Falls and from St. Bridget Catholic School will also attend. Some presenters at breakout sessions and seminars will be local teachers, principals and administrators.

Close to 170 participants are expected to attend during one or both days.

Conference costs, including the paid speakers, are covered by registration fees and by various corporate grants.

Chapin said there's greater access to character education expertise in southeast Wisconsin, particularly from the Jefferson School District.

The regional conference hosted next week in River Falls offers opportunities closer to home for western Wisconsin educators.

The conference training, speaking and workshop sessions are said to be aimed at K-12 teachers, K-12 administrators, coaches, parents, community leaders, counselors and more.

Chapin wanted local parents to be aware of a free presentation by keynote speaker Hal Urban from 12-1 p.m. Friday in the high school media center.

Urban is a former California teacher of 36 years. As a single parent, he raised three children.

Chapin said Urban is a dynamic speaker with a keen sense of humor. He's been on the speaking circuit since 1995 and is author of "Positive Words, Powerful Results: Simple Ways to Honor, Affirm and Celebrate Life."

Urban's book also stresses the importance of strong families in nurturing character in children.

For those involved in coaching youth sports, Chapin recommended a free session from 9:45-10:45 a.m. Friday, Aug. 17, in room C110 called, "Three Dimensional Coaching; Capturing the Heart of the Athlete."

The presenter is Mark Hall, with Fellowship of Christian Athletes out of Eau Claire. A former teacher and coach, parent of three, Hall also is a "character coach" for the UW-Eau Claire football team and the UWEC women's soccer and softball teams.

Chapin said 20 River Falls students, from elementary to high school, will also have roles at the two-day conference. They will greet and escort visitors at the school and pass out treats.

Chapin says that character education in the River Falls School District is a "way to brand our district...not as some marketing ploy, but as something we believe in and stand for."

Chapin cautioned that the foundation of a child's character "begins at home."

"I grew up here, and I have three kids who are now growing up here," Chapin said. "This is a great community, but I want this to be an even better place to live and to raise a family. The way that is measured is by how we treat others."