Character Strong is the message at La Center Middle School


Students earn praise and prizes through Character Strong program

The Character Strong program has been a fixture at La Center Middle School for three years, a part of everyday life for students and staff.

Of course, nothing that was normal is normal anymore.

With distance learning, the school wanted to come up with a way to keep the program alive.

Lauri Landerholm, the principal at La Center Middle School, has visited more than 150 homes during the pandemic, honoring her students who have shown acts of kindness. Photo by Paul Valencia
Lauri Landerholm, the principal at La Center Middle School, has visited more than 150 homes during the pandemic, honoring her students who have shown acts of kindness. Photo by Paul Valencia

After all, character building is important on or off campus.

This is how La Center Middle School maintained its “Character Strong” program but with a few changes. Because of those changes, the entire community has been able to take notice.

Before the pandemic, students who earned character cards for their acts of kindness were rewarded with a candy bar or fruit. More character cards meant more prizes. A T-shirt. Then a hoodie. And for any student who received 25 character cards, there was a certificate and recognition at an assembly in front of the whole school.

Schools, however, closed about a year ago. Students finished last school year with distance learning and started this academic year at home, as well.

“It was just so discouraging not to see kids,” said Lauri Landerholm, the school’s principal. “We’ve got this great program. How can we continue it?”

Reminders of the eight essentials of the Character Strong program as well as other kindness guidelines are on the walls throughout La Center Middle School. Photo by Paul Valencia
Reminders of the eight essentials of the Character Strong program as well as other kindness guidelines are on the walls throughout La Center Middle School. Photo by Paul Valencia

Landerholm and staff members came up with a way to reward students with digital character cards. Teachers could recognize students online. Character dares were posted on the school’s website. Students were given a week to complete the task.

Character dares?

Walk in someone else’s shoes, for example, Landerholm said.

“Talk to someone you don’t normally talk to or somebody you usually disagree with. Learn their perspective,” Landerholm said.

A student does this, reports back to a teacher, and a character card is earned.

There are many other ways to earn character cards, as well.

This year, when a student earned five cards, that candy bar or fruit was delivered, in person, by Landerholm and school counselor Daniel Thiessen.

“In a school of less than 400 kids, we have 305 students who have received at least one character card. I have 125 students that have received the candy or fruit prize, 42 have received T-shirts, and 10 have received hoodies.”

Oh, and new this year: Any student who earned at least the candy/fruit prize also received a lawn sign promoting Character Strong. 

That sign means a student who lives there has been highlighted by the school for performing acts of kindness.

“Since the fall, I’ve done (at least) 177 home visits,” Landerholm said.

“Our staff has made an effort … to keep this program going,” Landerholm said. “We identify that kids need a positive connection.”

She said there was an added benefit beyond just honoring students. It gave Thiessen and her a chance to check in on the students. 

“Is there anything we can do for you?” they would ask.

Students at La Center Middle School can earn T-shirts and hoodies through the Character Strong program. Photo by Paul Valencia
Students at La Center Middle School can earn T-shirts and hoodies through the Character Strong program. Photo by Paul Valencia

Landerholm said she would email a student prior to making a visit, to ensure the family that the visit was for a good cause.

“The kids just lit up. Every kid was so excited to have a home visit from the principal,” she said. “The parents have been very appreciative and thankful.”

The school board recently recognized Landerholm and her staff for the successful program.

While many students get a salute, Landerholm said there are two in particular who stand out this academic year.

One, a sixth-grade girl, moved to La Center over the summer. She had not met anyone. And until hybrid learning, she had not been on campus.

“Her first impression of our school was these visits we were able to do,” Landerholm said. “She ate it up. She was one of our first kids to earn a hoodie. She’s doing great.”

Another is an eight-grade boy who had been struggling with social skills. 

“This year was the year it all clicked for him,” Landerholm said. “He was the second kid to get a hoodie. He’s thriving. He’s got a goal.”

Character Strong has been part of the school’s mission since the fall of 2017. A year or so earlier, Landerholm was there when John Norlin, co-creator of Character Strong, gave a presentation.

“It really is about human connections and servant leadership and growth mindset and being kind,” Landerholm said. “Creating a culture of kindness. That spoke right to my heart.”

The eight essentials of Character Strong are:
Patience. Kindness. Humility. Respect. Selflessness. Forgiveness. Honesty. Commitment.

In the summer of 2017, Landerholm said 15 of the school’s 21 teachers signed up for Character Strong training. 

“We wanted to bring this into our school,” Landerholm said.

One leads by serving others, the program teaches.

“Middle school kids are eager to be helpful,” Landerholm said. “It’s a great … program to bring kindness into your building and really become part of your fabric and culture.”

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About The Author

Paul Valencia joins ClarkCountyToday.com after more than two decades of newspaper experience. He became the face of high school sports coverage in Clark County during his 17 years at The Columbian. Before moving to Vancouver, Paul worked at Oregon daily newspapers in Pendleton, Roseburg, and Salem. A graduate of David Douglas High School in Portland, Paul enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving three years as a soldier/journalist. He and his wife Jenny recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. They have a son who has a passion for karate and Minecraft. Paul’s hobbies include: Watching the Raiders play football, reading about the Raiders playing football, and waiting to watch and read about the Raiders playing football.

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