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Character Education Programs: Improving the Learning Environment of Schools

Friday, January 19, 2001 at 9:01 AM

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Cleveland and many other Ohio cities grapple with a multitude of problems when it comes to public education. Buildings are in poor condition, textbooks and lab equipment are outdated, not enough money is available to attract and retain high quality teachers. But one of the most frustrating aspects of teaching, many educators say, is the students themselves. In many schools too many students are unruly, undisciplined and disrespectful. And that, they say, makes teaching all but impossible. One teaching concept is gaining favor as a way to improve the learning environment: Character Education. 90.3's Bill Rice reports.

Bill Rice- John Marshall High School is one of about 20 Cleveland schools with some kind of Character Education program in place. Guidance Counselor Ann Dotson has been involved in Character Education since her days at Wilbur Wright Middle School, the first Cleveland school to adopt the concept back in 1994. She believes basic values are essential to the learning process, and that’s what many of today’s students lack.

Ann Dotson- And the goal of Character Education is to take our students back to those basic values, those core values of integrity and honesty and respect and responsibility, fairness and caring.

BR- When Dotson and Wilbur Wright Principal Cynthia Metzger transferred to John Marshall they brought their philosophy with them. John Marshall’s Character Education program operates with a $50,000 grant from the state, and $11,000 from the federal government. It identifies specific character traits, and promotes them to students in a variety of ways.

AD- We have an outline of the character traits - this year we’re focusing on nine, and we call them character ethics qualities of the month. We focus on those, those are displayed in the showcase, they’re displayed - quotes that the staff members get, they get a quote jar that has ten different quotes for each month that they can use as writing prompts and for teaching, we have posters and banners, announcements every day, and we have lessons the teachers teach regarding those character traits.

BR- It’s kind of a saturation technique, Dotson says. And that’s evident the posters and banners that line every hallway. “Got Character?” asks one. Another reads “The same wind lifts all sails. Be tolerant.” Stiil another poses a hypothetical: “If you blame someone else for something you do you won’t get in trouble. Will you blame someone else?” All of this supposedly helps kids to develop respect for their school, their teachers and each other. The students in Dan Leary’s Advanced Placement English class like the concept. Joy Smith has been exposed to character programs since she attended Wilbur Wright.

Joy Smith- A lot of people changed, we had the word of the week that a lot of people abided by, we had goals set, and awards sometimes, the bunny points, and I got many myself because I had good character. But it was very beneficial because a lot of people learned to conduct themselves well because of this program.

BR- And they appreciate teachers like Leary, who has a reputation for what’s known is effective class management - in other words, keeping the class under control and getting more teaching done. The trick, Leary says, is keeping kids engaged.

Dan Leary- My class gives them a little bit more than what’s in the textbook and what goes in their papers.

BR- Leary says in the course of teaching he’s willing to digress from the subject matter into more general discussions.

DL- You can ask them, we talk about all kinds of things, relationships and situations that occur in the real world, and being a parent and raising children, we talk about that all the time outside of the regular curriculum in the course of teaching the curriculum. So we do get into some discussions. And their response is always thoughtful. And that’s at the basis of how a character education program works is you have to have an audience for it, and they’re receptive to it.

BR- Now of course, these are honors students who likely came to school with an understanding of good character and values that might not be so evident in the general student population. A visit to the cafeteria turned up one student with a somewhat dimmer view of the program.

What do you think of these signs about the ceiling?

Student- I don’t like ‘em.

BR- You don’t like them?

Student- No, because they suck. They get in my way.

BR- Ann Dotson concedes there are always some who don’t buy in to character education. But the hope, she says, is that the message will sink in eventually, maybe not this year, or next, but someday. While John Marshall’s Character Ed program is generally considered successful, success comes slowly, and it’s hard to measure. Steven Bradley is an educational consultant who is evaluating all of the state-funded character ed programs in Ohio. This is only the third year for such funding, and Bradley cautions against expecting too much too soon.

Steven Bradley- There is no quick fix here, and that’s one of the findings in the interim report, which I just submitted, which is that we’ve got to stay at this for awhile. We’re not going to turn around in two years what took 20 or 30 years to create. So we have to be prepared to work at this for quite awhile.

BR- Character education has been controversial. Some say it’s difficult enough for teachers just to get through the curriculum in the time allotted, and that character lessons don’t count on a school’s academic report card. But advocates say the long-term benefit is worth the effort - better behavior, less time spent disciplining students and more time teaching them. And, they say, the younger kids start with Character Education, the better. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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