Led by the efforts of Sanford N. McDonnell, CHARACTERplus® was founded in 1988 as a project of Cooperating School Districts. It was known then as the Personal Responsibility Education Process (PREP). In its first phase there were seven local school districts who agreed to be charter members and four corporate sponsors willing to help fund the initiative. A year later, in 1989, fourteen school districts had embraced the goal to enhance the ethical and academic responsibility of youth. Linda McKay was hired as PREP’s first director and worked tirelessly to develop and formalize its process.
In 1992, the U.S. Department of Education awarded PREP a large grant to advance character education as an integrated, essential part of learning. It was the first grant of its kind awarded to Missouri. In 1993, the concept of PREP was taken to a national level as Sanford N. McDonnell worked to establish the Character Education Partnership (CEP) and was appointed to its Board of Directors. Based in Washington, DC, CEP is an umbrella organization that brings organizations and individuals together in promoting character education throughout the nation's schools.
The U.S. Department of Education recognized the work of PREP again, in 1997, when it awarded a four-year grant to enable PREP to spread character education throughout the state of Missouri. Upon the completion of this grant in 2001, the Missouri State Legislature voted to support the continuation of this initiative by providing state funding.
In the fall of 1999, just past its tenth anniversary, PREP was renamed CHARACTERplus, to better reflect the work and purpose of the organization. By this time, 34 area school districts had become members of CHARACTERplus®. Currently, after 20 years, 46 school districts and three individual schools in the St. Louis area are CHARACTERplus® members. These districts are located in 9 counties in Missouri; St. Louis City, St. Louis County, Jefferson, St. Charles, Perry, Warren, Lincoln, Franklin, and Washington. In addition, 4 counties are located across the river in Illinois; Jersey, Madison, St. Clair, and Bond.
These member school districts pay an annual fee to access the services and resources CHARACTERplus® offers. This fee is based on student population and covers approximately half of the costs of the services offered. The other half of the costs are covered by community donations. These services include a combination of advanced trainings, resources, collegial meetings, scholarships to conferences and workshops, and many community collaboratives. The membership allows educators, school administrators, school board members, parents, and community members of these school districts access to all the CHARACTERplus services and materials. These services include workshops that focus on character and moral development, ethics, literacy, service learning, bully & sexual harassment prevention & intervention, and many more issues related to character education.
In 2002, two four-year federal grants were awarded. The focus of one was to continue the spread of character education throughout the state of Missouri, and the other was for implementing the Caring School CommunityTM model in CHARACTERplus® schools in the greater St. Louis area. Comprehensive data was gathered during the four-year grant period to scientifically measure the effects of character education, including the relationship between character education and student achievement. The data for the CHARACTERplus model showed an increase in student achievement in Communication Arts by as much as 17% after having participated for 1 year. The data for the Caring School Community model showed an increase in student achievement in Communication Arts by as much as 47% and an increase in math by as much as 54% after the schools participated for 3 years.In July of 2006, Wood River – Hartford Elementary School District #15, located in Wood River, Illinois, was selected to oversee a grant from the US Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, to implement the CHARACTERplus process in all schools in Madison County, Illinois. The Partnerships in Character Education Program (PCEP) grants are funded to research the effect of character education on our nation’s young people – how it affects school climate, students’ sense of autonomy, belonging and competence, discipline referrals, and academic achievement.
Overall CHARACTERplus currently serves more than 700 schools in over 130 districts, reaching 25,000 teachers and more than 360,000 students throughout Missouri and parts of Illinois. Most recently, the Sprint Foundation has committed to provide funding for CHARACTERplus to expand into Kansas. This project began in the 2008-09 school year with two elementary schools.