In a hallway at Cherry Hill's Carusi Middle School, a kickball game was shaping up, and Ryan Dugan was the kid no one picked.
Sixth grader Talia Feliciano took a stand.
"If Ryan can't play, I quit," she declared. Before long, everyone was in the game.
But Ryan wasn't really excluded, and Talia's valor was in a script. The students and their fellow sixth graders have been working on skits about the various aspects of bullying - how to spot it, what to do about it, how to stop it.
"It's the idea they're learning from each other," assistant principal Ric Miscioscia said.
And helping one another build character.
That's what Carusi is all about, and the school is getting recognized for it.
It was recently named a National School of Character by the Character Education Partnership in Washington-based. It is the region's sole national winner this year and one of seven Philadelphia-area schools to receive the honor since 1998.
On Tuesday, Mayor Bernie Platt is expected to issue a congratulatory proclamation at a special assembly.
Carusi has long had character in its curriculum, but about five years ago, students and staff started working to infuse it into all aspects of the school experience, according to principal Kirk Rickansrud.
"We had the character education," he said. "We didn't have the character culture."
It didn't take long for that to change.
Two years ago, the partnership gave Carusi an honorable mention. Last year, the school was lauded as a state school of character. And now, the national accolade.
On any given day in the school's advisory periods, students and teachers explore issues such as peer conflict, relationships, and social and family concerns.
"I think our faculty does an amazing job working [with students] to help them understand the differences in each other," said teacher Theresa Wisniewski, who is on the school's character education committee. "They celebrate those differences."
Character education is also woven into core curriculum.
In science, there is discussion of ethics and research, she said. In math, students work as partners. In gym, inclusion and mutual support are stressed.
Each of the school's sixth, seventh, and eighth grades is divided into "houses" of about 100 students. Each house works with its teachers on character-focused projects.
One sixth-grade house started a Wall of Fame to recognize schoolmates. An eighth-grade house developed a relationship with Kenya's Maasai people. The students have written books for Maasai children, and each year, Maasai members visit.
Service is also big. Students conduct food drives at Thanksgiving. They have run coat drives. One eighth-grade house organized a schoolwide effort to send care packages to American troops overseas, Miscioscia said.
Each month has a character theme. May's was citizenship as students prepared for school elections. June's theme is service.
Though Carusi staff members do not claim the school is immune to problems such as bullying, they believe the emphasis on character has lessened it, and when problems crop up, they say they are dealt with.
Nicole Kahan, a seventh grader, said she was the target of bullying in sixth grade. She confided in a guidance counselor who was "amazing," she said. The problem student was spoken to, and Nicole said the counselor gave sage advice.
"She told me [to] put myself around people who make me feel good and not who put me down," she said.
Staff members support one another, too.
Recently, the teaching staff organized an appreciation breakfast for the school's custodians and bus drivers. Students wrote thank-you notes.
If Carusi sounds like a good place to go to school, that's because it is, students say.
"There are a lot more people I can trust, and a lot more groups you can fit into," said Monica O'Kane, seventh-grade president. Amanda Perna, an eighth grader in the National Junior Honor Society, said her school is special because it is a supportive place.
"When you're in the hallway, you stop anyone and ask for help, and they'll help you," she said.
Michael Hoeschele, a fellow eighth grader and Honor Society member, agreed:
"It makes you feel like school is one big family."