Character Program Advocates Seek $600,000 for Leadership Initiative in Schools

  |     |   Philanthropy

Advocates of a character-building curriculum for Coulee Region high schools made superintendents an offer they couldn’t refuse — so they didn’t, although they balked at one element.

That’s the introduction Festival Foods board chairman Dave Skogen gave to more than 50 business and community leaders and educators during a presentation Wednesday about a leadership curriculum for area high schools. It also was the wind-up for a pitch for pledges totaling $600,000 spread over three years to pay for the program.

Skogen and his wife, Barb, had considered the idea of a leadership training academy, along with Misty Lown, owner of Misty’s Dance Unlimited in Onalaska, and Marvin Wanders, CEO of Three Sixty Real Estate Solutions, Skogen said.

They suggested to superintendents that the former Festival support center in Onalaska, which has been vacant since moving to its new building in Onalaska, could serve as a potential site for the academy, Skogen explained.

“They said, ‘We’re not interested in busing students to your building,’” Skogen said, eliciting chuckles. “But we like the idea of a leadership academy.’”

One of the driving forces behind the effort to develop a servant leader-minded workforce was a 2013 survey in which more than 700 employers said they had trouble finding recent grads to hire because, although technically competent, the applicants lacked communication, adaptability, decision-making and problems-solving skills they would need for the jobs.

Thus was born the Character Lives curriculum, a leadership training initiative that was launched this semester in 21 area high schools, along with training for 60 teachers and administrators. The group brought in John Norlin, co-creator of the CharacterStrong curriculum on which Character Lives is based, to introduce students to the concept and train teachers.

Part of the $600,000 fundraising proceeds will be used to pay Norlin, a teacher, motivational speaker and leadership consultant from Sumner, Wash. Norlin has come to the region regularly, and the Character Lives team has a goal to train another 120 teachers and administrators by May.

Attesting to the training’s value was Annie Skogen, a senior at Onalaska High School and second cousin to Dave Skogen, who said students are learning the need to develop relationships, the potential of positive use of influence and the necessity to build a sense of community.

Pinpointing a person who had influenced her, Annie said, “I realized my first-grade teacher still influences me — 12 years later.”

Also a member of the Character Lives team is Patrick Clements, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who is part of the Coulee Region Whole Child Initiative with Skogen and others.

The initiative strives to teach life skills and cultivate a culture of character, said Clements, who is president of Clements Management Consulting.

Norlin also addressed the lunch group, saying, “Research is not just suggesting — but it’s showing — that, if we teach students only for test scores, that is only one-third to one-half of what they need.”

Holding a cell phone aloft, Norlin said, “Students can engage in five different conversations on six different platforms” on the device, but many are lost when it comes to a face-to-face conversation.

“If you ask them to meet someone and talk, it’s like a death sentence,” he said.

“We are built to be relational, but we are more isolated than ever before,” in part because of the tech disconnect, Norlin said.

Character Lives, which hews to the servant leadership model imbued in the Coulee Region, espouses the mantra, “To Lead is To Serve.” It teaches students to relate to each other and develop character, the foundation for improving the community and the world, he said.

Schools that don’t know how to achieve that simply assign the task to community service hours that don’t necessarily convey the reasons, Norlin said.

“We want to create citizens who want to give back because they know the why,” he said.

While happiness often is cited as the goal for life, “we need to stop living for happiness and live with a clear sense of purpose,” he said.

Norlin scoffed at the slogan that leaders are born, not made, saying that applies to only a precious few, “and it lets everybody else off the hook. We all have influence — we all have skin in this.”

As society has moved away from a culture of character to one of personality, it has lost the sense of caring for each other, he said.

“Personality is a gift,” he said. “Character is a habit.”

Saluting the Character Lives team, Norlin also said, “This community is behind this work” of building character and leaders unlike any other he has encountered.

The next step is to provide the financial base for the training, Wanders said, encouraging attendees to fill out pledge cards with amounts ranging from $300 over three year, dubbed the “Support a Teacher Level,” to the $60,000 platinum benchmark for corporate sponsorship.

More information on Character Lives is available at its web site. Contributions may be sent to Character Lives at P.O. Box 609, La Crosse, WI 56402.

“We want to create citizens who want to give back because they know the why.” John Norlin, co-creator of the CharacterStrong curriculum on which Character Lives is based

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