Back to the basics: Schools embracing `character education'

Starting with respect, Carroll will stress new trait each month

July 07, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

It sounds like "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Carroll County students will return to class this fall to a program that could, on its face, make high-schoolers want to gag: Each month, they will "celebrate" a character trait. First comes respect. Then responsibility and trustworthiness. Then cooperation, and kindness, and courtesy, and so on.

But don't cringe yet.

Where "character education" is afoot -- in Baltimore, across much of Maryland and around the country -- such seemingly saccharine programs, intended to teach children basic values and ethics, are winning accolades. Proponents say they sidestep prickly debates over religion while teaching kids traits critical to good citizenship.

It is no surprise, then, that Carroll officials have high hopes. Barbara Guthrie, who chairs Carroll County's character education steering committee, said all schools will make it part of their school improvement plans. The only marching orders are that the entire community focus on the same trait, beginning with respect in late August and September.

"We're not going in and saying do this in a certain way," Guthrie said. "We hope when you walk into a building, you hear about respect over the loudspeaker."

Guthrie's committee wants community organizations to become involved, funding awards or promoting activities. The South Carroll Rotary Club has expressed interest in giving a student exemplifying a trait an award each month.

Carroll is joining a nationwide movement that has gained considerable momentum since the massacre at Columbine High School, which many Americans have blamed on a lack of character-teaching.

Esther F. Schaeffer, executive director of the Character Education Partnership, a Washington nonprofit group, said interest has been growing during the past five years.

Schools are using numerous methods, often with a focus on what a local community finds important. A Louisiana law signed by Gov. Mike Foster yesterday requires pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade to address teachers politely, for example, as "sir" or "ma'am."

Many school systems, like Carroll, surveyed the community to generate a list of traits. Carroll's list covers respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, cooperation, kindness, courtesy, helpfulness and service, integrity, justice and fairness, self-discipline, dependability, self-confidence, self-direction and perseverance. Some months will feature more than one trait.

Schaeffer warned that the month-by-month focus Carroll is using can become superficial if a school system is not careful.

"Some spend 10 minutes in some kind of drill exercise: `This morning we'll talk about respect,' but then you're off into a school where you don't talk about it again," she said.

"If you're teaching history," Schaeffer added, "you can expand and enrich by having conversations about the ethical and moral issues people dealt with. What did Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson agonize over?"

Revitalized idea

The movement is not new, just reinvigorated. Jim Sarnecki, administrator for character education in Baltimore City, was chairman of a "Character Education Committee" in the mid-1980s.

"We're talking more about the way a student acts," Sarnecki said. "Kindness. Truthfulness. Do you respect yourself? Do you respect your school?"

Baltimore City and Baltimore, Calvert, Frederick and Prince George's counties share a $1 million, four-year grant from the Department of Education funding character education programs through next year. Carroll, like many other districts, has no outside help and will receive no additional money.

`Universal values'

According to Mary Aranha, the state's director of character education, most public systems in the state and many private schools have some form of character education, whether called that or not.

"With character education, we're not talking about religion or controversial issues," Aranha said. "It's universal values. We're reinforcing what should be taught at home."

To President Clinton, whose administration has been promoting character education for several years, it is a workable alternative to calls for religious teaching. During a visit last month to Germany for an economic summit, Clinton attacked a Republican proposal to allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in public schools. Clinton said he was working with Education Secretary Richard W. Riley on character-education legislation he would present to Congress as an alternative.

Carroll's school-by-school approach is borrowed from Calvert County, one of the systems receiving federal dollars. Guthrie, the Carroll coordinator, said she expects students to discuss the trait of the month in class, in school activities and in discussions with guidance counselors.

Carroll's school calendar will include a quote each month referring to the trait and a monthly newsletter will be sent to interested county organizations.

Guthrie stressed that while the focus shifts each month, students are encouraged to practice what they learned in months past.

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