Schools Turn To Character Ed

ItÂ's a new school year at Slavens Elementary in Denver. There are new backpacks, experiences, and a fresh addition to the curriculum: character education.

As CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Alison Stewart reports, this schoolÂ's faculty is counting on community enthusiasm, as well as a federal grant, to create a school culture that will promote ethical behavior. And it joins a host of other schools nationwide embarking on character education.


"Most people here believe you need to be educated in mind and heart," says Principal Charles Elbot. "Knowledge isnÂ't good enough. With knowledge you need to be a good human being."

"We look at it as a 13-year process," he says. "Kindergarten is the beginning; a young person leaves home and all of sudden is one of five kids in a classroom community that is the beginning of being a part of a larger world, the whole world ultimately."

The combination of violence in schools, an epidemic of cheating and negative outside influences have made character a priority in the nationÂ's classrooms.

Thus far, 36 states have some sort of character initiatives, and 28 have received federal funds to teach right from wrong. In 10 states, it is simply mandatory. Recently, Louisiana passed a law requiring children to address all school employees as maÂ'am and sir. Character education, however, varies from state to state and school to school.

Character education is not a new concept at Cibola High School in Albuquerque, N.M. Four years ago, Cibola High began using federal funds to implement a popular program called Character Counts. ItÂ's based on whatÂ's called the six pillars of character: respect, responsibility, caring, fairness, citizenship and trustworthiness.

"I think school should teach character to build character within the student," says Cibola senior Erika Tucker. "YouÂ're not at home all the time; youÂ're not at church all the time. And I think with students at school five days a week , if they get it at school, itÂ's going to put positive reinforcement in their lives."

Tyler Albers, also a student in the senior class, is a fan of Character Counts, but admits to being skeptical at first. "It was funny," he says. "Nobody did listen to this at first. They thought it was a joke."

ThatÂ's no longer the case. Character Counts is not a separate class but worked into every aspect of school life. ItÂ's on the walls, part of the morning announcements and woven through classroom discussions.

"When I teach about the '60s and '70s, we talk about the cultural revolution that wasnÂ't a revolution because we did away with a lot of structure in our society. But we didnÂ't replace it with anything," says history teacher Connie Hudgeons.

"And so weÂ're kind of floundering in the morass weÂ've created and we have a wonderful opportunity to go in and replace the structure," Hudgeons says.

"I do exercisethat kind of lure the students into a false sense of security and sort of trap 'em," says Bill Putz, who teaches English and communications.

The exercises reveal what their true emotions are. "Over the last three or four years, IÂ've seen a decrease in violent responses," he says.

Teaching character is both complex and quite simple, according to Ted Sizer, a former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He maintains that modeling is the most effective way to teach character to children. He puts the onus on teachers and adults, not kids.

"Those of us in the school business have to make sure our schools are principled places and that kids understand why we do what we do," Sizer explains. "And we understand that we do it because itÂ's right and itÂ's good and itÂ's moral."

Sizer and his wife, Nancy, are authors of The Students are Watching, and founders of the Francis Parker Charter School, outside Boston, Mass. They say anonymity is the enemy of character, and that small classes and teacher involvement are indeed the answer.

At Francis Parker, students donÂ't have traditional homeroom. Instead, they meet for Morning Connections, just to talk.

"I donÂ't have much confidence that you can implement character education like you implement physics; these are different things. And the whole question about kids believing in principled lives is far more complicated than what you can find in a textbook," says Sizer.

There is debate over the best way to implement character education and the Sizers acknowledge that theirs is a liberal approach.

New Mexico's Character Counts, like other programs, is very organized with Web sites and workbooks.


AP
Students at Slavens Elementary School in Denver

In Denver, Slavens Elementary struggled to create its own program after a year of discussion and planning.

"ThereÂ's not a great debate over values; no one will argue over kindness," Principal Elbot says. "[It] doesnÂ't need to be a political football. We need to let go of political and leave it at a grassroots level."

But then there are those people who just donÂ't believe character has an appropriate place in the classroom.

The words character and values have become politicized; some elected officials have embraced character education. Many critics worry it may open the door for religion in schools.

Last year some congressmen pushed for the Ten Commandments to be posted in classrooms, in response to the shootings at Columbine High School, a school not ar from Slavens Elementary.

Some New Mexico students who have experienced character education claim it has actually helped relieve tensions between cliques in their school.

"The boys who did the shooting - all the football players and jocks picked on them. Maybe if they learned to respect and care, it would have changed," says one student.

Both Slavens Elementary and Cibola High have made long-term commitments to their programs. They see it as more than a quick fix.

"Looking at it long term, we have a commitment for nine years of school," says Elbot. "This is hard work, exciting work. LetÂ's not simplify it to word of the moment."

And according to Ted Sizer, the tangible results wonÂ't register on surveys and tests: "What that child does when weÂ're not looking; thatÂ's the test!"
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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