Some superintendents might be content to boast about the new schools and great test scores in the fast-growing community of Rockwall County, Texas. Gene Burton, superintendent of the Rockwall Independent School District (RISD), has a less tangible priority. It’s the sight of young people demonstrating kindness and compassion that gives him “goose bump moments.”
Schools in this burgeoning suburb 25 miles east of Dallas have long been devoted to educating the whole child, says Burton. “We live in this fast-paced, high-stakes testing environment, and our students perform academically very, very well. But we believe in the three H’s: the heart, the head and the hands.”
Birth of Compassion
RISD’s counseling staff, led by director Nancy Boyd, has spent the past year and a half designing and implementing a character-education curriculum that has already become a national model for reaching elementary-age children. RISD’s inspiration is the life story of Rachel Joy Scott, the vibrant 17-year-old who was the first victim in the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
One month before her death, Rachel Scott wrote an essay in which she challenged readers to practice her personal definition of compassion: “forgiving, loving, helping, leading, and showing mercy.” She was known at Columbine for reaching out to new students, those being bullied, and those with mental and physical handicaps. “I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same,” she wrote.
After Rachel’s death, her father, Darrell Scott, created Rachel’s Challenge, an international outreach program devoted to preventing teen violence by nurturing a student-led culture of kindness within middle schools and high schools. He and a small speaker’s bureau composed of Scott family members and friends have spent several years traveling around the nation and abroad—sharing Rachel’s thoughts and journals in countless school assemblies. Their work has inspired thousands of teens to form Friends of Rachel social advocacy clubs on secondary campuses.
In the spring of 2007, Rockwall’s Nancy Boyd first witnessed the emotional impact that Rachel’s Challenge assemblies had on Texas teens. Deeply appreciative, she voiced a challenge of her own to guest speaker Larry Scott, Rachel’s uncle. Why wait until adolescence? “We need to start this in elementary school,” she told Scott.
Boyd enlisted three RISD counselors—Christi Crump, Dina Rowe and Rochelle Eddy—to spend the summer of 2007 with her developing an age-appropriate, yearlong program that could be woven into Rockwall’s elementary curriculum. They wrote lessons for each of the five points long stressed in a Rachel’s Challenge assembly: the power of positive and negative influences, the importance of goal-setting, the practice of journaling to express feelings, the evidence that acceptance overcomes prejudice, and tools for fostering a climate of kindness at school and in the greater community. They wrote a letter to Rockwall parents, and also invented K.C. (Kindness and Compassion) clubs, the elementary version of the Friends of Rachel clubs.
Chain of Kindness
In a final stroke of brilliance that would honor Rachel Scott’s dream of a “chain reaction,” the counselors chose a symbol that would capture the imagiation of nearly every Rockwall child, parent and district employee: a paper chain.
In the fall of 2007, every elementary classroom was invited to spend the year creating a chain whose handwritten links would document individual acts of kindness, not only among children but in daily exchanges that included the adults in their lives. With Burton’s support, every bus driver, food service worker, school administrator, teacher, school board member and groundskeeper was offered training in the chain link concept. The plan was simple but powerful: By the end of the school year, every chain was to be joined for the first annual communitywide celebration of compassion, called Rachel’s Rally.
“I started by ordering 73,000 strips of card stock in four different colors,” Boyd recalls. Within a few months she needed to order 50,000 more. As the year progressed, and the chains marking acts of kindness grew, Burton says, every campus in the school district offered a similar report: fewer discipline problems, fewer bullying incidents, more examples of children being accepting and helpful, and an overall spirit of unity.
On the evening of May 8, 2008, a paper chain comprising 123,000 links and measuring three-and-a half miles in length was bundled together and carried into Rockwall’s Wilkerson-Sanders Memorial Stadium by the county’s fifthand sixth-graders. Greeting them were nearly 10,000 students, parents, community leaders—and Darrell Scott. “I believe with all my heart,” he told the children, “you are going to be world-changers.”
“That was a goose bump moment,” says Burton. Just wait until the Rachel’s Rally in 2009, he adds, when the chain link will have 130,000 paper dolls holding hands, each documenting an act of compassion and illustrating the district’s theme for the year: “The Power of One.”
Today Rockwall Independent School District is an official partner with Rachel’s Challenge, serving as its model district for a comprehensive K12 program that can be shared via the Rachel’s Challenge offices in Colorado.
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer based in northern California. To learn more about the new elementary school program, contact elementary program director Cody Burch by e-mail (Cody@RachelsChallenge.com) or call 877-895-7060 x 707.