ESSEX, Md. – James Smith, 11, isn’t a throwback to Beaver Cleaver.
But the Beav and James have a few things in common. They listen to their parents, avoid trouble and work hard in school.
James says character education has helped him polish his manners and respect authority.
He is one of the reasons Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend launched a statewide character education initiative Thursday at Sandalwood Elementary School.
“Before, if my teacher would ask me to do something I would ask why do I have to do that. Or I would tell her I didn’t feel like doing it,” said James, a Sandalwood fifth-grader.
“But now I have a better understanding about why I should listen. And why I should follow directions.”
Under the initiative, five school districts will participate in a pilot program funded by a $958,027 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The money will be distributed over four years to schools in Prince George’s, Baltimore, Calvert and Frederick counties and Baltimore City.
Each school will either develop a program that infuses character education into its curriculum or establish specific classes on values and ethics.
“We want this to become a part of the students daily routine,” Townsend said. “We want teachers to be properly trained to find innovative and effective ways to teach their students right from wrong.
“Since 1979 the state has had a commitment to values education. But this is the first time we are putting money behind it, establishing an office to make sure the effort becomes a part of every school.”
Townsend announced that the state had created a State Character Education Office as part of the Maryland State Department of Education in Baltimore. The office is headed by Mary Aranha, former principal of Benjamin Foulois Traditional/Classical Academy in Suitland.
“I know parents may have concerns that this may take away from the time teachers spend teaching their students the basics such as reading, writing and math,” Aranha said. “What we want teachers to do is use teachable moments to stop and explain to a student why a certain behavior is wrong instead of immediately punishing them.”
For example, with character education in place, if a student is caught cheating on a test, the teacher would explain why cheating is wrong. Or, to prevent students from running down the hall, a teacher would explain the dangers of students hurting themselves or another classmate.
Students at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi have already put character education into their daily routine.
Vermelle D. Greene, vice principal, said the benefits came quickly.
“In one day, a student returned a lost wallet with $10 in it. In that same day another student returned a calculator. Another returned a purse. And another returned a watch,” Greene said. “That wouldn’t have happened two years ago before we started character education.”
Greene said each week, the school works to deliver the message of a value word: honesty, trust or responsibility, for instance.
“We send letters home with students so the parents can reinforce that word of the week at home,” Greene said.
She added, “This initiative means so much because 10 or 15 years ago, teachers weren’t supposed to do this. We were just supposed to teach. So the initiative will help train teachers as well as benefit the students.”
Townsend said the initiative will focus primarily on elementary and middle schools.
The character education office will work with teachers, principals and parents to establish standard advocates hope to adopt statewide. -30-