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Horace May Elementary School honored for going above and beyond to encourage kindness

From left, Bemidji Middle School seventh graders Alexa Greendahl, Kelsey Boucher, Brittney Beck and Kaylynne Lyon sign a kindness poster Tuesday afternoon pledging kindness toward others as they celebrate a week of kindness in the school. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper1 / 2
Back row from left are Horace May Elementary School teachers Amy Eklund and Kelly Wolf and paraprofessional Karin Revering. Front row from left are teacher Robert McKeown, Principal Bill Burwell and special education teacher Belle Aakhus. The staff members surrounding Burwell hold miniature cereal boxes given to students who receive a "Horace May Kindness Kid" award. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper2 / 2

Once a month, a handful of students from Horace May Elementary School are asked to eat breakfast with Principal William "Bill" Burwell, and it's not because they're in trouble.

They are "Horace May Kindness Kids" - students who are nominated by their peers for demonstrating acts of kindness in school. Each month, the nominated students each receive a miniature cereal box, featuring a grinning Burwell holding a spoonful of Special K cereal. At their special breakfast, Burwell announces each of their displays of kindness.

Since Burwell started as principal in 1993, roughly 1,300 students have received "Kindness Kid" awards, which is why it seemed obvious for a group of staff at Horace May to fill out the Minnesota Schools of Character application in the beginning of the school year.

Earlier this month, the Center for Academic Excellence application evaluators notified the school that its application will be forwarded to the Character Education Partnership for additional screening for the National Schools of Character award.

CAE reviewers noted that Horace May had one or more "promising practices" which stood out among other schools. Its accomplishments in character education will be recognized at the Minnesota Schools of Character & Promising Practices Awards ceremony May 20 at the state capitol rotunda.

The CEP will notify Horace May in early March if the school has been selected as a National Finalist and will be scheduled for a site visit.

Burwell said the school's commitment to building character in students originated from the school's namesake - Horace May.

Horace May Elementary School opened its doors in 1973, named after a local physical education teacher and high school coach.

"We have taught character building from the beginning," Burwell said. "The school was named after high-character person. I haven't run into anyone who didn't like Horace May."

The school's encouragement of kindness is now the school motto, "At Horace May we practice the Big K - Kindness."

Over the past decade, Burwell said the number of discipline referrals has gone down significantly because of the school's motto.

"The motto is what gives us a focus," said Robert McKeown, a teacher and member of the character education application committee. "Everything we initiate falls within that motto."

In the beginning of the school year, "The Recliners," a pop music group comprised of Burwell and several teachers and paraprofessionals, lead the student body by singing original songs about respect, belonging, caring and good behavior.

"(Character building) starts right away in the morning," said teacher Kelly Wolf. "Student expectations are reinforced every day. I'm proud to be here."

Each year, staff at Horace May emphasize character education through teaching students about respect, kindness, anti-bullying and good manners.

"Seeing the look on the kids' faces at breakfast when all the kids applaud them for their kindness is what I love the most," Burwell said. "We have wonderful kids. This is the best school I've ever been involved with."