John Horan-Kates: Program aims to build character at Eagle County |

John Horan-Kates: Program aims to build character at Eagle County

John Horan-Kates
Vail, CO. Colorado

Webster’s defines character as that combination of qualities that distinguishes our moral or ethical makeup. More practically speaking, it’s how we act when no one is watching.

But how do we develop character?

It starts with values as a foundation that influences our behavior. Values are those qualities that we say are important to us. They are the things we really treasure.

Character development is not a quick-fix activity or shaped by some intellectual exercise. Rather, it’s a long-term maturing process that blends experience with matters of the heart. And it starts early ” at home and in school.

The concept for a character-development program locally was hatched by Melinda Gladitsch, who pitched it to Mark Strakbein, principal at Eagle Valley High School.

The initial program was tested in Ashley Newman’s homeroom and then taken schoolwide when Strakbein was looking for glue that could hold everyone together during an arduous two-year construction project at the high school.

Yet beyond the disruption, Strakbein sensed that this was a time when more than math, science and English was needed. He wanted to promote life skills in partnership with the home.

Why is this so important now? The primary reason, I believe, is economic. With the trend toward two working parents, there is simply less time at home. In a single-parent home, it’s even more challenging.

And, right or wrong, schools are stepping in to take up some of the slack. But when anyone says they’re going to teach values, the first question is, whose values? It was from this perspective that Exploring Potential evolved. Subtitled “The Keys to Leading Your Life,” the program is a comprehensive leadership-development experience with the primary purpose of helping each student set an early life direction.

Exploring Potential uses a participatory process that introduces young adults to leadership through the Vail Leadership Institute’s “inside-first” framework. The program is centered on core values and key principles, with one principle given significant focus periodically during the school year. The principles or themes covered include respect, perseverance, positive attitude, integrity, responsibility and trust.

Here’s how it works. Parents get involved at the very start by working at home with their students in identifying their core values using a deck of Values Cards. This allows parents to influence the critical values issue.

Following this introduction, during most weeks on Tuesdays, students write in their Future Leaders Journal on these themes and then discuss their responses for 10 to 15 minutes in homeroom class.

Periodically, speakers are brought in to underscore the selected theme, either to all-school assemblies or to select homerooms.

Speakers will include local community leaders and previous graduates.

Erik Zimmer, general manager of CenturyTel, the sponsor, spoke recently on perseverance. Topper Hagerman, managing partner of Howard Head Sports Medicine, will speak soon on attitude.

The program concludes each school year by having students focus on goals and then present their life plans on storyboards using photographs and magazine headlines.

The program is integrated into the overall mission of each school, and the themes are woven into newsletters, posters, staff meetings, the school’s Web site and other school activities and organizations.

Why should all of this be important? The answer lies in helping young people develop their potential.

The young people now emerging from our schools are the leaders who will change things.

Leadership may sound like some lofty, complex concept for the really smart people, but the truth is we are all leaders in one way or another. Each one of us is the leader of our life.

The program emphasizes that even though one’s skills will evolve over time, the character journey has already started. The punch line is, “Take responsibility for your life choices.”

In addition to Eagle Valley, the program is operating at Red Canyon and Vail Christian high schools.

If you would like to participate in this program, please contact myself or one of the high school principals.

John Horan-Kates is the president of the Vail Leadership Institute in Edwards. He

can be reached at 970-926-7800 or

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