Local business leaders, schools partner to integrate new character-building curriculum

LA CROSSE, Wisconsin—Local business leaders are bringing the community together to provide a new character-building curriculum to the region.

Called Character Lives, the curriculum can be easily integrated into existing classes or offered as a separate class. It’s designed to develop character and instill servant leadership values in youth to transform schools—and ultimately, communities—into places that truly care about the well-being of others.

Numerous studies demonstrate that curricula like Character Lives

  • Boost academic performance
  • Lower stress and help prevent mental illness
  • Prevent negative behavior (e.g., drug use, violence, bullying)
  • Equip students with soft skills, including communication needed for workplace success
  • Promote self-management

“Research shows that when a school takes time to teach life skills and cultivate a culture of character, grades go up and bad behavior goes down,” said Patrick Clements, retired Air Force Colonel and president of Clements Management Consulting. “When students learn the value of kindness, service and empathy, they don’t just walk out of school being competent at math and science—they walk away being capable, compassionate neighbors, workers, friends and volunteers.”

Character Lives is based on the CharacterStrong curriculum developed by John Norlin and Houston Kraft and first implemented in Washington State where Norlin resides and teaches. When La Crosse’s Dave Skogen, chairman of the board for Festival Foods, learned about Norlin’s work and the outcomes it was producing, he knew it could transform the local region.

“Character is our moral maturity—a set of human virtues such as humility, kindness, forgiveness and self-control. It’s doing the right things even when we don’t feel like it. Character is what we are beneath the personality we show the world,” said Skogen. “Teachers are excited to teach this Character Lives curriculum; several have told us that this is why they got into education in the first place. It’s perhaps what has been missing in schools for a long time.”

Skogen and his wife Barb partnered with Marv Wanders, CEO of Three Sixty Real Estate Solutions; Misty Lown, owner of Misty’s Dance Unlimited and several other enterprises; and Clements to form Coulee Region Whole Child, a nonprofit company, to integrate the Character Lives curriculum into schools throughout the region. Clements now serves as executive director of the organization.

The curriculum is already being used in 19 of 26 high schools— Central, Logan and Onalaska among them—in CESA 4, which encompasses approximately 38,000 students. Onalaska High School has implemented the curriculum as a dedicated course called Principles of Leadership.

“It is our intent to have every high school student take the Principles of Leadership course before they graduate,” said Fran Finco, superintendent at Onalaska School District. “Having our students understand the importance of developing into a servant leader is paramount to their successful futures.”

The Skogens, Wanders, Lown and Clements provided the seed money to introduce and place the curriculum in time for the current school year, but CRWC needs institutional support and private funding to operate the program, particularly as it builds to create new revenue sources, such as continuous learning options, school certifications, memberships and program expansion.

“It will be one of the best investments our community ever makes,” said Clements. “The research shows that for every $1 invested in programs like ours, there’s an $11 return, plus all the positive intangible value we can’t measure. When we teach the whole child, the whole school and the whole community benefit.”

A program of Coulee Region Whole Child, Character Lives is a character development curriculum that teaches the social and emotional skills students need in order to become successful—at school, at work and in the community. By reducing stress and negative behaviors, Character Lives reduces the costs that result when people are not equipped for success—including costs such as public assistance and incarceration. Coulee Region Whole Child was founded in 2017 and is awaiting approval of status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.