Vista High School Character Leaders Program

Character Education programs that specifically target high schools are generally few and far between.

A notable exception is the Vista High School Character Leaders Program, which began with Character Education project funding from the U.S. Department of Education in 2006. However, its continued success and growth have everything to do with the California school’s flexibility, creativity, and, ultimately, commitment to making the program work.

Vista High Character Leaders at a 9/11 Day of Service and Remembrance Activity

With over 220 students enrolled in Vista’s Character Leaders (CL) elective course (the program started with just 65 the first year), many of them returning for up to a consecutive three years, Vista High School’s program is thriving and now an established part of the school’s culture.  The course’s syllabus includes Service-Learning Projects, and an impressive required reading list with related writing assignments, covering both fiction and non-fiction titles.

Supported By Data

Year after year, more and more students enroll in CL. And enthusiasm for the program only seems to grow. Stakeholders believe that the program, along with other efforts the school has been making, has made a real impact on the school’s overall climate.

Discipline numbers have improved dramatically, dropping from a baseline 13.1% suspension rate (n=396) in 2006-07 down to 7.3% (n=194) in 2010-11. API scores have seen an increase from 705 in 2006-07 to 750 in 2011-12.

While the above improvements are not causally linked to CL, it can be surmised that the program may have impacted students’ attitudes toward school and supported a positive learning environment.

Vista High Character Leaders volunteering at the Anstine Audubon Nature Preserve

Even more compelling are California Healthy Kids Survey data of VHS students enrolled in the CL course (Targeted) compared to VHS students not enrolled in the CL course (Universal), in key scales such as “Opportunities for Meaningful Participation “ and “School Connectedness.”

In spring of 2010, 62% of Targeted students reported high levels of “School Connectedness” versus 40% of Universal students. Even more impressive are the 51% of Targeted students reporting high levels of “Opportunities for Meaningful Participation” versus 14% of Universal students.

Factors for Success

This program was originally implemented at two high schools, but only survives— and thrives—at one, even though both high schools began with the same resources and opportunities. What made the difference? We’ll tell you in tomorrow’s blog post! (Read Part 2 here.)


  1. Jeff Erickson says:

    I’m interested in the Character Leaders program. Is there a syllabus or course materials available for me to review?

    • Carol Kim says:

      Hi Jeff! Thanks for your question. There’s a new post up that has some links to pertinent webpages for the program as well as David Hanlon’s email address. Hope that helps – and good luck!


  1. […] couple days ago, we started telling you about Vista High School’s Character Leaders Program – what it does and what its outcomes seem to be on the students who are participating. There […]

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