The Plaza Elementary School auditorium was packed last Friday as hundreds of energetic children eagerly awaited a highly anticipated announcement. For years, Plaza has been dedicated not only to its students’ academic success, but also to their personal development. This year, that commitment has paid off: Plaza was recently recognized as a National School of Character.
Every year, the Character Education Partnership, a nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, selects 65 schools across the country that have gone above and beyond to help develop students’ character, This year Plaza Elementary made the exclusive list for the first time.
It’s “a big deal. There’s only four schools in the state and 65 across the country that got this designation,” said Mark Gray, Plaza’s principal. “We saw the application process as something that would give us goals to shoot for, and would help us to see what we needed to get better at and strengthen the things we were already doing well.”
The school has begun programs and projects that encourage students to think about their own character and consider how their thoughts and actions affect others. From art projects to poster contests to journalism programs, Plaza has focused on character development.
“It’s great,” said Asia Dowl, 10, a Plaza fifth-grader. “I’ve been at this school since kindergarten, and to see how the school gets noticed is great.
“I think it’s because our school [has] such a strong bond with everybody,” Asia continued. “And I think everybody really understood the need to look at character and how we [present] our school to everyone.”
The theme of character development and personal accountability led to the establishment of a set of core values that Plaza students are taught. “We managed to narrow it down to three core values: activism, respect and empathy,” Gray said.
The principal noted that he was impressed by his students and faculty for all of the work they have done. “We worked really hard as a community to find a way to recognize the kids for being really awesome,” he said. “The kids are able to see how they can connect to their education and the world around them through these service projects and understanding their core values.”
All the children were told was to come to the auditorium for an important announcemen. They weren’t told why. Gray and Superintendent Dr. Shari Camhi kept them in suspense, acting like TV hosts, rousing the audience.
“You guys have worked so hard and you have demonstrated such amazing character that I would like to ask you for a promise,” Camhi said. “No matter what the result of this award, you will show all of the adults in our Baldwin community, and Long Island, New York state and the rest of the country what it means to be good and kind and empathetic and caring.”
“There were only a small number of schools that were given this award,” Camhi explained. “I want to congratulate all of our students and our teachers and our administrators and our families, because this doesn’t happen by accident, and it doesn’t happen easily.”
A video presentation titled “We Are Plaza” was played at the assembly, highlighting the school’s courses, programs, faculty members and students. The children squealed with joy when they saw themselves and their friends in the video. When the announcement was finally made, the auditorium erupted into frenzied applause.
Ryan Carney, 10, a Plaza fifth-grader, said he believed the school deserved the recognition because Plaza students and faculty exemplify the three core values each day.
“I know we worked so hard for it, and it’s great to know that hard work pays off,” Ryan said.