Building `intelligence plus character'

Two Anne Arundel elementary schools are honored for their focus on teaching positive traits

Education Beat


At Fort Smallwood Elementary School in Pasadena and South Shore Elementary School in Crownsville, "character" is more than a word that kids learn before a spelling test. It's a quality that teachers and administrators actively work to instill in their pupils.

Both schools were recognized this month for their character education programs by the Maryland Center for Character Education, a nonprofit organization established in 1992 that focuses on encouraging ethical behavior, both in schools and among private citizens and businesses.

Typically, one or two schools from each county receive the recognition each year, said Mark Beck, president of the center and one of its founders. "Individual school systems pick them," he said. All public and private schools, for kids in kindergarten through grade 12, are considered, he said.

"It's a key thing that we do every year," he said. "We give out a big flag and a plaque, and the schools are tremendously excited about it. It's a very positive public relations tool for the school."

The winning schools are chosen based on how students are taught about values.

"Anything in the school that might have to do with either setting an example or critical thinking in terms of values," Beck said. "It's not something that just happens by rote, but they understand the foundation of why it is important."

At South Shore, pupils don't just learn about character traits like generosity or honesty - they also teach the traits to other children in the school. Each month, a different fourth-grade or fifth-grade class is responsible for exploring the trait in a morning program on the school's closed-circuit television. The pupils talk about the value, giving examples and quotes, said Principal Deborah Williams. Then that trait is highlighted throughout the month.

"When the students are recognized, are caught showing that character trait, then their name goes up on a board," Williams said. At the end of the month, the recognized pupils receive a ribbon, pen or other token for their efforts.

"We do have a lot of kids who really work hard so they can be recognized," Williams said.

The school has a three-part plan for instilling character in children, she said. It focuses on building character by encouraging pupils to take responsibility for their actions; building self-esteem by motivating them to do their best; and building community by encouraging them to contribute to the world. A banner near the front door boasts this quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education."

"We try to make the school and the community a better place, so we've done a lot of different projects over the years," said Catherine Bach, a fifth-grade teacher and co-chairwoman of the human relations committee with Kay Dambach, an early childhood intervention assistant. The school donated canned items to the county food bank, raised funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami, and collected change to help fight leukemia, she said.

The pupils also took part in a recent blood drive with the American Red Cross. They encouraged their parents to come in and give blood, and they manned the stations, dispensing juice and collecting forms.

"It was a very positive initiative," Williams said. "And that's what we mean by building community, inspiring students to contribute to the community around them."

Fort Smallwood was recognized in part because of its partnership with a sister school, the Nyanni Primary School in Wamunyu, Kenya, through a Maryland-based nonprofit, Kenya Connect. Pupils from the two schools share letters and artwork, said Principal Gwen Atkinson, who brought the program to her school in the fall of 2004, she said. Fort Smallwood pupils even raised money to buy water tanks for their Kenyan counterparts, she said.

In addition, the elementary school has "character patrols," in which fifth-graders serve as role models for younger children. Each month, a character trait is highlighted, and children earn "raccoon tickets" (named for the school mascot) when teachers spot them exhibiting the trait. The tickets are redeemed for incentives provided by area businesses, Atkinson said.

Other projects include a mitten tree and food drive for local families, as well as fund-raising for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The school is also involved with Second Step, a violence-prevention program that is provided by the county.

Atkinson said her school had never before submitted an entry for the character education award.

"I was thrilled," she said about winning the recognition.

Williams, too, said she applied for the honor for the first time this year.

"This was just something that came across my desk, and I said, `You know what? We have a dynamic program; let me try this and see what happens.' And it happened," she said.

Said Atkinson: "We just feel that there are two things that are going to help you in the world - academics and getting along with others, dealing with diversity. That's what we're about here."

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