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Character Education: Alive and Well in American Schools

Courtesy: Old Bridge Public Schools

Becky Sipos wants you to know that character education is thriving in schools around the U.S. — and beyond.

Sipos is CEO of Character.org. The organization was founded in 1993 as Character Education Partnership, when a group of teachers got together who were concerned about the state of education. When their conference was about to disband, a student who had been invited to participate said, “Look, we kids want to be good; but we need help.”

Character.org was designed to be a leading advocate for character education, an umbrella organization for all things related to positive behavior in schools.

But following the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and the rise of social media soon thereafter, schools seemed to shift their focus to bullying and ways to prevent it. In recent years, many schools have adopted anti-bullying programs aimed at reporting offenders, modifying behavior and supporting victims. High profile initiatives have been sponsored by the federal government as well as major corporations. The outcomes have been mixed: While some programs have had success, some studies have questioned their effectiveness.

Sipos’ organization has a different take on improving the educational experience.

Character.org’s website says that it “strives to ensure young people everywhere are educated, inspired, and empowered to be ethical and engaged citizens.”

In other words, Sipos says, it’s about teaching kids empathy.

Though anti-bullying has resonated with the public, Sipos says, it’s not the quick fix to a problem that schools may be looking for. But character ed is not a quick fix either.

“It’s a transformation of school culture,” she says. It takes time and effort.

What is character education?

The U.S. Department of Education describes it this way:

“Character education teaches the habits of thought and deed that help people live and work together as families, friends, neighbors, communities and nations.”

The site goes on to say:

“Character education is a learning process that enables students and adults in a school community to understand, care about and act on core ethical values such as respect, justice, civic virtue and citizenship, and responsibility for self and others.”

The word “values” is a charged one that leaves room for misperception. There’s always the question of whose values a school is teaching, right? Does this mean religion will creep into the curriculum? No, says Sipos. Character education is about commonly-held values shared by all stakeholders, she says.

In an article in The Atlantic, educator Jessica Lahey says, “Character education is not old-fashioned, and it’s not about bringing religion in to the classroom. Character education teaches children how to make wise decisions and act on them.”

And it seems that many agree. Character.org recently hosted its National Forum on Character and Education in Atlanta. Thirteen countries were represented, along with 33 U.S. states. Participants from 252 schools, districts and universities attended networking events and workshops. The highlight for many were the keynote speeches. One speaker was former Major League Baseball star Dale Murphy, who promotes good character and sports through his I Won’t Cheat Foundation. Civil Rights leader and Congressman John Lewis inspired attendees in his closing keynote.

“Schools of Character”

Character.org recognizes those schools and districts that exemplify character education at work. There are State and National “Schools of Character.” This year, Character.org recognized 64 schools and 3 districts from 14 states as 2015 National Schools and Districts of Character.

The process is rigorous. Schools wishing to be designated “Schools of Character” must apply and submit online portfolios that build on the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education. The evidence is first examined at a state level. Then national leaders send site evaluators to determine firsthand how the school is implementing these principles. Some schools apply more than once in an attempt to earn the label.

Old Bridge High School in Matawan, New Jersey, is a 2015 National School of Character.

According to the school’s vice principal, Sally Fazio, “Old Bridge High School began its campaign of character when Mr. Vincent Sasso became the principal in 2012 and adopted the slogan, ‘Do The Right Thing,’ which instantly became our school’s bumper sticker.” The school’s transformation began with students, staff and the community rallying around that motto and the positivity caught on within the school itself.

Then Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Hoeker led the character movement and encouraged all district schools to apply to Character.org for recognition. Old Bridge is proud of its designation as a National School of Character.

And the results of its efforts go beyond the title. Over the past five years, out-of-school suspension has declined by almost 30%; in-school suspension is down 21%. Fighting is down 84% and harassment and bullying reports decreased by 78%, according to Fazio.

She says that the there are “palpable enhancements in relationships” among the school’s teachers, students and parents. According to Fazio, 87% of the school’s parents believe that the school supports “a positive learning environment.” Fazio says that a recent transfer student remarked, “You can’t help but get involved when you walk into OBHS.”

Effectiveness of Character Education

But not everyone will agree that character education works. A 2010 Department of Education study cast doubt on the effectiveness of some social and character development programs on behavior and academics among the targeted elementary school groups it studied.

But Sipos points out that this study focuses on curricula, not “whole school transformation,” the cornerstone of Character.org’s approach. She also points to studies by Dr. Marvin Berkowitz and Mindy Bier, whose research strongly supports positive character education outcomes. And she points to years of data gathered by Character.org that indicate academic performance, attendance, graduation rates and teacher retention, among other factors, all benefit from character education in a school.

Much of the noise in the educational space currently centers on politically-charged topics like education reform and Common Core. Sipos would like to think that character education is a different voice in the education debate. “There’s a lot of focus on negative,” she says, but adds that character education is a “shift to the positive.”



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