Character education pushed by Townsend

Governor candidate plans for mandatory programs, teacher training funding

May 19, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's first significant campaign initiative will build on something she's been pushing for almost two decades -- community service and character education.

Starting this week, Townsend will lay out plans for every public school in Maryland to create substantive, "high-quality" programs to teach -- and have students practice -- such character traits as respect, responsibility, caring and kindness.

"Originally, the whole purpose of public schools was to teach democratic values: to teach honor and responsibility and respect," said Townsend, the leading Democratic nominee for governor. "In the 1960s, schools got away from that. I think it's important to focus on teaching kids right and wrong, and personal responsibility and respect for others."

The proposal -- which will include about $1 million for teacher training -- follows on Townsend's efforts 10 years ago to make Maryland the first, and still only, state to require community service for high school graduation.

By selecting character education as the first major issue of her campaign, Townsend is focusing on a subject that's widely acknowledged as a popular bipartisan issue. President Clinton and President Bush have pushed for character education at the federal level, including grants to states and local districts.

"A majority of states are now doing some form of character education," said Thomas Lickona, director of the Center for the 4th and 5th R's (Respect and Responsibility) at the State University of New York College at Cortland.

Character education typically refers to teaching children such values as right and wrong, respect, responsibility, tolerance, honesty, citizenship and honor, often through explicit classroom lessons.

All 24 local systems have some type of character education programs, but only nine have them in all elementary, middle and high schools.

"It hasn't spread everywhere yet because we haven't had all of the resources we need for training," said Mary C. Aranha, who oversees character education at the state education department.

Townsend said that putting about $1 million toward training school staffs -- and throwing the weight of the governor's office behind the initiative -- will ensure that schools follow through.

"We're beyond the question of whether you should do this. The real issue now is how you go about it," Townsend said.

Townsend and her expected Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., both say they will propose other public school initiatives as the gubernatorial campaign moves forward. A spokesman for Ehrlich said the congressman also supports more civics and values instruction in Maryland schools.

Activism traced

Townsend's activism in character education can be traced to the early 1980s when she came to Maryland. This week, in visits to schools and meetings with local systems' teachers of the year, she hopes to use the topic to illustrate the broader themes of her campaign -- using government to encourage community involvement and help people to help themselves.

"This is something that has clearly been so close to me for many, many years," Townsend said. "It's been my passion."

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Townsend oversaw Maryland's Student Service Alliance, an arm of the state education department that operates as a nonprofit agency funded largely through outside grants. Led by Townsend, the alliance fought to make service-learning compulsory in Maryland schools.

At the time, making 75 hours of community service a graduation requirement faced substantial opposition from students, teachers, parents and local school boards, who frequently ridiculed "mandatory volunteerism" as an oxymoron.

"She brought a great passion to it," said Bonnie S. Copeland, executive director of the Baltimore nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence and former deputy state superintendent. "There weren't too many people in favor of mandating community service, but she was tenacious. It was clear that service learning and character education were things she really believed in."

Most education groups have since changed their views, though even the program's biggest boosters acknowledge that the service requirement remains uneven from system to system. Some school districts have woven it into their curriculum to such an extent that students barely notice they're volunteering, while other children are required to complete extensive community service activities.

"The essence of it is to realize that being a citizen is more than being an observer," said Luke Frazier, the service alliance's executive director. "It's to get out into the community and help others who are less fortunate, who are in need of assistance."

In each of the past three years, fewer than a dozen high school seniors statewide have been denied diplomas because they've failed to complete the requirement. Later this summer, Frazier said. he expects to have the results of a study of the requirement and the long-term effects it has had on graduates.

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