PALMER, Neb. — Learning concepts such as integrity and courage helps students learn mathematics and reading, so the Palmer Public Schools are putting students in kindergarten through 12th grade in “character houses.”

“We spend less time disciplining and more time with instruction like we need to be because kids know what's coming — it's consistent,” said Palmer Elementary Principal Sherise Loeffelbein.

She said staff learned a discipline model with clear expectations and consequences at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta.

This is the second year Palmer has implemented techniques developed by Ron Clark, whose experiences teaching in New York City's Harlem neighborhood was chronicled in the 2006 made-for-TV movie “The Ron Clark Story.” A former superintendent was introduced to Clark's strategies through a colleague and brought it to Palmer.

“The biggest selling point for us was the high energy and engagement,” Loeffelbein said, adding that the method uses music and activity to get kids excited about learning. Music also helps kids remember rules of mathematics and grammar.

This year the “character houses” were added to the mix.

On the first day of school Thursday, each of the 250-some students chose a duck in a pond to find out which of the four groups — Virtus (courage), Optimus (noble), Integritas (integrity) and Spirare (inspire) — they would be a part of for the rest of their years at Palmer's schools. The seniors then provided a short skit that helped define the characteristic of each group.

Teachers explained that students can earn rewards for displaying the characteristics of the groups. When a staff person sees a student, in or out of school, doing something “above and beyond” that is courageous, noble, inspiring or displays integrity, the student's house can be awarded points. The house with the most points at the end of the quarter will get a reward.

Those point-worthy actions could be something like picking up trash on the playground without being asked or helping a teacher. The first points were given Thursday as an upperclassman stopped to tie the shoe of a kindergartner without being asked.

“The kids are holding each other accountable, so it's not just staff making the corrections,” Loeffelbein said.

“Each house is based on a characteristic that we hope (students) will convey,” Loeffelbein said, adding that they will start by learning how to show the characteristic of their own group but eventually will learn more about all the groups. “They will help others learn: This is what integrity looks like, or courage.”

State Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, who was invited to see the unveiling of the character houses, said she was impressed, and likened some of the aspects to the one-room schoolhouse concept.

“The older kids are teaching the younger ones and looking out for them,” she said.

Students' parents also will be able to get involved. Volunteering at the school or after school will earn points for their student's house.

“Excellence is going to be expected and excellence is going to be achieved,” Superintendent Joel Bohlken told the students.

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