Two Kansas High Schools Earn National Award For Character Education

Jun 29, 2015

Math teacher Michelle Hilliard helps student Darrius Hutton with geometry.
Credit Deborah Shaar

A high school in the Maize School District has earned a national award for building character education into its curriculum.

Complete High School Maize is one of only two schools in Kansas to be named a “2015 National School of Character” by the Washington, D.C.-based education nonprofit, Character.org.

64 schools from 14 states earned the designation, which will last five years.

Math teacher Michelle Hilliard finishes up the last of the geometry problems with senior Darrius Hutton.

They work side-by-side at her desk while a handful of other students wrap up their work on computers throughout the small classroom.

Credit Deborah Shaar

Hilliard says the instruction at Complete High is very individualized and based on the students’ learning styles.

"I teach algebra, geometry, and algebra 2 and anything else that needs to be taught in between," she says. "Everybody in the class is working at a different level or a different pace. So I might have one kid working on geometry, the first part of geometry, and another kid working on algebra 2. Very rarely are we working on the same thing at the same time."

Complete High is known for giving its students this kind of special attention. After all, it’s a very small school by high school standards: Only 60 to 70 students attend each year.

And there’s a waiting list to get in. That usually doesn’t happen with a public high school. But then again, Complete High is anything but traditional.

"We are the alternative school in Maize, and all of our students reside within our district," says Complete High Principal Kristy Custer, who has been at the school since it opened 16 years ago.

Assistant Principal Michelle Hilliard and Principal Dr. Kristy Custer
Credit usd266.com

"We like to say we’re one big family. We’re all pulling for each other," Custer says. "This is a voluntary school. No one gets sent here. The students that are here, they want to be here, they want to do a good job, and they take a lot of pride in their school."

Complete High has a lot to be proud of these days. It was one of only three schools in Kansas that earned the state designation “Kansas School of Character.”

From that, Complete High and Pittsburg High School advanced to win the prestigious national award from Character.org.

Custer says these awards go to the heart of the alternative school’s mission.

"This just reconfirms that...we’re on the right track to graduating good people, and it confirms not only for the staff but for students who take a lot of pride in this," she says. "They like to be known as the nice kids, because there are so many stereotypes for alternative schools. And I think that’s why I giggle a little bit when I say, 'We’re the National School of Character.'”

Complete High has embedded character education into its full curriculum and high school experience.

There are no bells in the block schedule; instead, music starts and students know it is time to take a seven-minute break before they switch classes.

Students are expected to help keep the classrooms and hallways clean because there are no full-time janitors. They even built a character lesson into the very name of the classrooms.

"The names of the rooms are people who have struggled with school," Custer says. "So for example this is the Gates room, and Bill Gates dropped out of college. We also have the Churchill room. (He) struggled in school. So it tells students that these are people who were very successful in life, but they always didn’t start off that way as far as school was concerned."

Credit Deborah Shaar

The song “We Believe” was the school’s character motto this year. It was integrated into lessons, displayed on hallway walls, and used at the end of the break music to let students know they have one minute to get back to class.

These school-day expectations and the caring community created within Complete High are life lessons that 18-year old Andrew Stilwell says he won’t soon forget.

"We get along, but you kind of have to get along because there are so few of us," Stilwell says. "But you also learn to appreciate all the other people, where they come from, and you learn to know the staff and everything they do for you. It really makes you care about school, I think. Whereas if you go a traditional high school, yeah, you might end up caring about your school, but there’s no way any of those kids cares as much as I do."

Graduate Andrew Stilwell
Credit Deborah Shaar

Stilwell graduated in May after spending four years at Complete High. He started during his freshman year.

Custer says most students attend Complete High for one or two years until they earn enough credits to graduate.

The school adds students from the waiting list throughout the year as students leave.

Because this school is intended for students who are at-risk for dropping out or have previously dropped out of high school, graduations are a big deal.

Stilwell and 30 other students received their high school diplomas in May.

"It was a big crying mess," he says. "It was just tears. But I’m like, 'What do I do now? Do I go to college?' I have no idea. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time."

Stilwell and the other graduates are leaving Complete High with a sense of accomplishment for what they achieved--and for what they overcame to get a diploma.

Back in the Einstein Room, math teacher and assistant principal Michelle Hilliard knows perseverance makes a difference in the classroom and in life. Hilliard’s mother, a high school dropout herself, became the driving force to create an alternative school in the Maize School District.

It was an idea met with resistance in the community, some of which was quite vocal.

"The final thing that kind of convinced everyone that this was needed in our district was they put up a map and they put pins in our district where the drop-outs were in our district," Hillard says. "Everyone assumed it was a socioeconomic problem, but it wasn’t. There were pins in our wealthy neighborhoods, there were pins all over. That kind of, I think, got people going, 'Okay, this is an issue. We need to do something about this.'"

Complete High opened its doors in the fall of 1999. Hilliard’s mother became the founding principal. Her father was the district superintendent.

Hilliard says winning the national and state characters awards is more than pride for them; it’s validation.

"They are thrilled," she says, "It just makes all the struggles worth it. I’m going to cry…it just makes all the struggles worth it.

Credit Deborah Shaar

This October, Complete High will be honored during the National Forum on Character Education in Atlanta.

In addition to being named a “2015 National School of Character,” Complete High School Maize also received awards for two programs:

  • Promising Practices Award for the “Somebody’s Someone” program which matches each student to an adult mentor from the school or community.
  • Spotlight Award for the Internship program which allows students to participate in a job-related professional internship during their tenure at school.

More information about Complete High School Maize can be found at usd266.com.

The only other school in Kansas to receive to a "National School of Character" designation was Towanda's Circle High School in 2014.

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