ANNAPOLIS – In the math classes of Baltimore County’s “character education” elementary schools, students learn about sharing and subtraction at the same time.
At Crossland High School in Prince George’s County, students have given adopting a nursing home a new twist: they set up activities in school and let the senior citizens come to them.
And at Gov. Thomas Johnson Middle School in Frederick County, a group of students who stay after the last bell aren’t there for detention. They’re organizing programs to promote good behavior and values.
All three of these counties, along with Calvert County and Baltimore, are nearing the end of a four-year $1 million federal grant to develop ways to integrate examples of good moral behavior into the curriculum. Maryland is one of 28 states since 1995 to receive grants to improve schools through character education, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Character education has become a buzzword among politicians and educators. Leading presidential candidates, notably Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, have preached the importance of designing school curricula to include lessons on values such as responsibility, caring and respect.
“You can’t just teach the intellect, you have to teach the whole child,” said Mary Aranha, Maryland director of character education. Since the state established the Character Education Office in 1996, Aranha said all 24 counties have begun some formed of ethics learning.
Although teaching ethics in schools is not a new idea, educators said youth crimes like the Columbine school shootings, in which 15 people died this year in Colorado at the hands of two students, have helped bring the issue of character education to the forefront.
“I believe, around the nation and within the community, that using (character education) is part of the response on issues of school safety,” said Sharon Boettinger, supervisor of counseling and school support for Frederick County.
Each of the five school systems using federal funding tried out separate methods to instill values in students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Baltimore, Baltimore County and Calvert County are all using self-designed models that look at different ways to introduce character education to schools, including teacher training and community involvement.
Meanwhile, Frederick and Prince George’s counties are using programs created by outside sources. Frederick uses “Character Counts,” designed by the California-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, and Prince George’s added the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation’s “Community of Caring.” Both programs focus on values their creators say all people should embrace, regardless of politics or religion.
While teaching good morals and behavior sounds difficult to argue, Aranha said some people were wary of the idea when the schools first started it. Parents worried that ethics education was synonymous with teaching religious doctrine. To counter those concerns, Aranha said, school systems and their communities together designed character education programs for all students.
“We’re talking about universal values that transcend socioeconomics, religion and culture,” she said.
State surveys of the five systems have shown positive results since the character education programs began. One survey given to students, teachers and parents in the 109 schools showed the number of students who respected their classmates, solved conflicts constructively and refrained from picking on others went up an average of 15 percent.
Dropouts, suspensions and absences have declined in some of the participating schools, educators said. For instance, the high-school dropout rate in Prince George’s County fell to the state satisfactory level for the first time since 1993, according to the Maryland Department of Education.
Character education has improved student conduct, according to Patsy Holmes, coordinator of safe and drug-free schools in Baltimore County.
“Kids are (behaving) better in school. They’re attending, and they’re getting better grades,” she said.
Success rates for character education won’t be known for three to five years, Aranha said, but local educators maintain the programs already are showing progress.
“People are feeling more positive about the school environment,” said Mildred Perry, coordinator for student advocacy in Prince George’s County.
Victoria Karol, assistant director of staff development in Calvert County, also attested to the success of character education. She said she plans to help train educators from other counties, including Anne Arundel, Charles and St. Mary’s, to begin similar programs.
The Character Education Office will seek new funding to continue the programs once the grant runs out next year, Aranha said. While evaluators haven’t determined which of the models works best, they have found that certain things should be included in any character education program, like community involvement and student leadership.
The key, school officials said, is to integrate examples of good values into the entire curriculum.
“(Character education) is not an add-on,” Aranha said. “You can’t just do it for 15 minutes a day. You have to live it.”