DUNDALK — Students at General John Stricker Middle were surprised with a ceremony at a pep rally last week to celebrate their school being selected as the 2019 National Champion for the Middle School Kindness Challenge.

Out of more than 1,000 schools that took part in the challenge, General John Stricker are the national champions named by host organization Stand for Children.

“The students were completely surprised,” said the school’s principal, Laurie Phillips Friend.

“Everyone was absolutely thrilled. You could see and hear in them how happy they were that we won.”

School officials attended the event, including Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) Interim Superintendent Verletta White, East Zone Community Superintendent George Roberts and BCPS Executive Director of Secondary William Bates. There, they showed their appreciation for the kind kids of Stricker. White presented a special charity check to the flabbergasted crowd.

The Middle School Kindness Challenge challenges schools to encourage its tween and teenaged students to practice kindness on a regular basis while taking responsibility for managing their emotions, actions and statements through varying activities.

Daniel O’Donnell serves as Director of the Kindness Challenge, and said that the program has been live for “about a year and half.” In that time, he said more than 2,300 schools have registered to take part.

“We run the challenge every semester,” O’Donnell said. “At the end of each semester, we select ten schools from around the country that really exemplify the lessons that we teach as part of the Kindness Challenge.”

The Dundalk area middle school was named one of the ten national finalists out of hundreds of participating schools, and were ultimately crowned the national champions. O’Donnell said that General John Stricker Middle was chosen for its school-wide commitment to acts of kindness that create a safe and welcoming climate and a school environment where students can excel.

During a four-week period in December, students and staff sent out kindness messages during the morning announcements and created their own kindness patch during homeroom to highlight either an act of kindness they’ve witnessed or a way to show kindness to others.

One group of students created a kindness quilt, which is currently on display in the school’s front lobby. Students will continue to create an annual kindness quilt as the Dundalk school’s ongoing kindness ritual.

The youngsters also crafted a kindness tree, wrote positive letters to one another for bad days and created skits about kindness. Homerooms participated in a door-decorating contest, where they displayed positive messages.

Teachers got in on the action, too. They made staff holiday shirts featuring the Grinch holding a bulb ornament that said “Be Kind.” They also posted kindness messages on a bulletin board and created themed wreaths.

O’Donnell said that a committee reviews and judges the activities of each school who participates in the challenge, noting who goes above and beyond.

“What they sent up to us after the challenge was really moving,” he said. “They described a totally different school structure.”

“The most powerful part is the leadership from our teachers and students,” said Principal Friend. “The kindness challenge went right along with the work we’re doing this year on trauma-informed instruction. Not only did most educators sign up to teach a kindness lesson, but the challenge also gave students a purpose—even kids you would not expect to participate.”

“Typically the challenge is among the students,” added O’Donnell. “What we saw from Stricker is that it was transformative for the adults. Between the adults and students, we discovered that this was something that was needed at the time. If you walk through the school, you can see that something really powerful has happened there.”

In an effort to continue to foster kindness and positivity, Superintendent White presented the school with a check for $5,000 in DonorsChoose.org credits, to be used for materials for kindness. They also got t-shirts and a trophy.

Aligned with the Baltimore County Public Schools priority on school climate, the Middle School Kindness Challenge is focused on kindness and student learning in Grades 4-8. Available at no cost, the Challenge includes a faculty orientation, reflection exercise and a choice of four kindness activities taught during a four-week period. The four categories of activities are: strengthening peer relationships, developing positive mindsets, fostering student empathy and spreading cyber-kindness.

“It’s becoming more and more apparent that we need to teach children to manage their emotions and actions and to regularly demonstrate kindness in their day to day lives,” said Jonah Edelman, co-founder and chief executive officer of Stand for Children. “General John Stricker students demonstrated that young people are hungry for kindness-centered activities and that they genuinely want to learn in an environment where respect, caring and support are common-place. We honor their efforts and invite schools nationwide to join this movement.”

Stand for Children is a non-profit education advocacy organization focused on ensuring all students receive a high-quality, relevant education, especially those whose boundless potential is overlooked and under-tapped because of their skin color, zip code, first language, or disability.

“To see the students walking around proudly wear wearing their shirts — it just does your heart good,” Friend said.