At KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary we believe that we, as educators and school leaders, are responsible for not only academic instruction, but also for ensuring that our students have the character skills they need to succeed in college and beyond.  Educational experts have identified school culture as one of the most critical factors in determining the effectiveness of a school.  We strive to continue to proactively create a school culture where it becomes apparent from the moment you enter the blue double doors on our campus that everything—and I do mean everything— is intentionally designed to create a school culture that remains hyper focused on preparing our students for college.

In December, when we were informed St. George’s Independent School has been partnering with Agape North for their custom apparel to be able to donate t-shirts to our students, we sought to create an opportunity for our students to feel the positive effects of being character-full by creating a dual purpose experience; integrating our character strengths and tracking their progress towards character goals.  Our grade-level chairs took ownership of aligning a character goal for their grade, where students would have the opportunity to earn a character t-shirt as they demonstrated grit, optimism, and self-control in action.  The data supports the idea that there is a positive relationship between school attendance and overall academic achievement. Nationally, one in ten kindergarten and first-grade students are chronically absent, missing nearly a month of school—these early absences have a strong correlation to reading difficulties and poor attendance patterns in later years.  At KMCE we wanted to recognize and incentive the effort students and families are making to be present at school each day.  Students who were present 95% of the school days during an entire month, and made positive choices earned their character t-shirts.  Each student had the opportunity to earn a character t-shirt, and if a student did not meet the requirements during one month, they had the opportunity to earn a shirt the following month.  In December after our first community meeting, (KIPP speak for grade-wide assembly), the disappointment on some students’ faces who did not earn their t-shirts was palpable.  Multiple teachers across our school used this as an opportunity to name and integrate a lesson around our optimism character strength, expecting the best in the future, getting over frustration quickly, and believing that with effort a goal can be achieved despite setbacks.

In December I led the school tour and was fortunate to be a part of the sample lesson with our Central State Kindergarteners, and the students of St. George’s as a part of their t-shirt donation.  Our kindergarten KIPPsters learned a mini-lesson about self-control alongside the students of St. George’s, and cheered when they previewed the character t-shirts they would have the opportunity to earn.  Our KIPPsters immediately began earning their t-shirts in December, each grade included a celebration of students who earn their t-shirts around this in their weekly community meetings.  Below is a picture from the giving experience, when St. George’s visited us at KIPP to learn about the impact of their donated shirts.

Students have the opportunity to wear their KIPP t-shirts and jeans on Friday, if they’ve earned theirs.  We saw a positive effect in having our students be influenced by seeing their peers earn a special designated shirt—they quite simply were motivated to do the same.  Teachers were able to give students feedback formally on a month-to-month basis and have structured conversations around attendance and behavior, connecting to a students’ progress in earning their character t-shirt, while more deeply anchoring the conversation in the ultimate why, ensuring our students have the character skills and habits they need to be successful in school and beyond.  We at KIPP are very grateful for the St. George’s donation and what it has allowed us to do with a “simple” t-shirt incentive.

Julie Poluszejko / Principal, KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary