Church civility ministry spawns pilot program that works

Something remarkable is happening at Scott Lake Elementary School in Lakeland.

A young boy known for aggressive behavior recently picked up a classmate’s dropped lunch tray. He didn't walk over and kick it out of reach as he once might have. 

Teachers at elementary school media center at tables preparing civility kits
Schoolteachers assemble kits and learn about a new civility curriculum at a recent public school training program. Photos from American Civility Association.

A fifth-grader with autism received an invitation from her fellow safety patrol members to join them for birthday celebrations and lunch in the cafeteria, even though she spends her school day in a separate classroom.

And a student asked a teacher if he could have a cup of coffee as a kindness for his own teacher.

"He just didn't have the money [for the coffee]," said Diedre Skaggs, district guidance specialist in Polk County. The teacher said yes and walked with him as he carried the coffee to his classroom. "His little heart was beaming because he could do that."

These random acts of kindness are believed to be fostered by a pilot learning program known as Operation Hedgehog, created by the American Civility Association. The nonprofit organization got its inspiration from a faith-based program taught by Southside UMC, Jacksonville, about four years ago.

The goal is to make schools healthier and safer by nurturing a culture of civility. Since 2011, schools in Polk, Clay and St. Johns counties, including St. Johns Technical High School in Jacksonville, have introduced the civility curriculum to their students.

"They became a kindness campus," said Amy Barnett, the association's founder and a Southside UMC member. "Civility begins with gratitude. Kindness, goodness and respect will follow. It will happen. They embrace it."

In 2014-15, the percentage of student referrals for behavior problems at Scott Lake decreased by 80 percent. Suspension days declined from 164 to 107, a 35 percent decrease. Incidents of stealing fell from eight to four, a 50 percent decrease. Class disruptions, aggressive behaviors and insubordination also saw declines. And absences from school fell by 35 percent.

Pilot programs for Operation Hedgehog aimed at teenagers at St. Johns Technical High School, which has middle and high school students, saw similar results from 2011 to 2013.

Two teens with youth minister Steve Dickson packing supplies at Southside UMC
Southside UMC student ministries director Steve Dickson, right, and students pack candy for an "Operation Hedgehog" civility training in public schools.The candy will be part of a training about positive responses. 

Scott Lake guidance counselor Candace Shim said students would start each day discussing what they were grateful for.

It was a positive spin that seemed to be more effective against bad behaviors, including bullying, than designated anti-bullying programs.

“If you’re being kind, you can’t be a bully at the same time,” Shim said. “I think it’s more preventative.”

Barnett hopes to confirm that soon with results of an independent study examining the program’s effectiveness.

Even in this endeavor, faith is playing a role.

The University of Central Florida (UCF) is completing an independent study focused on eight schools in Polk County.

Tom Owens, UCF’s director of the Center for Educational Research and Development, is volunteering his time to compile the data.

Owens and Barnett recently learned they are both Methodists. Owens attends a church in Winter Haven.

Even before realizing that, though, Owens said, “We both were acutely aware we were people of faith.”

The study will make comparisons between schools that use the program and those that don’t. Schools employing Operation Hedgehog will be studied for behavior and attendance before, during and after the program’s completion.

The association will hire a statistician to crunch the numbers.

"We want to see if we can tie behavior to the curriculum and see if there is a residual effect after they have taken the course," Owens said. 

While this study won’t address links between civility and improving test scores, Owens said there are studies that support that potential.

The nonprofit is secular, but Barnett credits longtime church volunteer Libby Lee, 96, with planting the seed for what became Operation Hedgehog and its “Precious NOT Prickly” (like a porcupine) theme.

Amy Barnett seated with civility ministry founder Libby Lee
Amy Barnett, left, founder of the nonprofit American Civility Association, looks over civility curriculum materials with "Miss Libby" Lee, whom she credits with starting a civility ministry at Southside UMC, Jacksonville.

Lee told Southside members she worried that children weren't learning the manners and etiquette she remembered growing up as a child.

Church volunteers responded with a six-week course in civility that began with 15 children during Lenten season. By the second week, 30 children were participating.

"They were very good children," Barnett said. But “Miss Libby” was right, she said. There were some gaps in social graces. The program began with lessons from scripture but also taught such simple gestures as holding a door open or pulling out a chair to help someone sit down.

Stories from Chinese proverbs and other children’s stories also were part of teaching “pay it forward” examples of kindness.

For Barnett, those Lenten lessons were a catalyst to finding a way to reach a broader audience.

“You’re seeing the shootings and violence,” she said. “It gives people a sense of helplessness. They think it’s too late, but it’s not too late.”

Barnett hopes eventually to spread the association's civility message "in business, life and school" nationwide. Her focus for now is introducing Operation Hedgehog to schools in Florida and establishing the data to show the program works.

The association produces educational materials for students and educators in prekindergarten through 12th grade. Volunteers provide training in how to introduce the curriculum into the classrooms.

Southside still plays a role. On a recent Saturday, about 15 teenagers and adults at the church collated and boxed up materials that would be used to train teachers at five schools in Polk.

In nearly four years, more than 1,000 educators in Polk, Clay and St. Johns have been trained, according to the association. More than 7,000 students have participated.

Duval County now is piloting the program at seven alternative schools, as well as in its elementary schools.

Barnett is betting on Operation Hedgehog to be part of the solution for restoring kindness and gratitude to the world. She is starting with the children.

“When you see the problem and wish somebody would do something,” she said, “then often it is your calling."

Click here to read more about the American Civility Association.

– Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.

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