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Character education and the new three Rs

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 12, 2013: When schools are putting so much emphasis on numbers – MAP scores, accreditation points and the like – finding a place in the curriculum for something as tough to measure as character education might seem difficult.

But with a pioneering local program known as Characterplus about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, its supporters say that a solid background in character education is a great way to help boost academic achievement.

“The newest three R’s are rigor, relevance and relationships,” says Marvin Berkowitz, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who is co-director of its Center for Character and Citizenship and director of the Leadership Academy in Character Education.

“When you do character education, usually the stuff becomes more relevant and more interesting. You start talking about values and other issues, and it makes a dry curriculum come alive. Relationships are basically the molecules of character education.”

Since Characterplus began in 1988 as the pet project of Sanford McDonnell, retired chairman of the McDonnell Douglas Corp., its relevance and its influence have grown from involvement by seven St. Louis County school districts to 75 districts in Missouri and Illinois, plus one in Kansas – more than 330,000 students, 29,000 teachers and 645 schools. It is a program of the Cooperating School Districts.

Characterplus has expanded on the strength of programs on topics like bullying and proper behavior on the school bus, aimed at teaching five core values:

Respect, caring, fairness, responsibility and honesty.

Listing those goals may be easy, but Berkowitz and others say that instilling them into a school’s culture is a constant effort, one in which teachers and others entrusted with helping kids succeed can do their most effective work by example.

“There’s no off switch,” he said. “If adults are around kids, you will affect their character.”

And for Berkowitz, getting educators to realize what they need to do often involves finding just the right approach that will trigger a transformation in attitude.

“I tell people my title shouldn’t be professor of character education,” he said. “It should be epiphany engineer. I work to make light bulbs go on.”

Being PREPared

In 1988, McDonnell left his position atop the aerospace company that his uncle had founded. He wanted to do something about what he considered a less-than-admirable attitude toward ethical behavior that he had experienced in the corporate arena.

“Sandy decided he didn’t like some of the character and ethics he was seeing in the business world,” said Dave Kuschel of the Cooperating School Districts, which shares a campus near Creve Coeur with the Characterplus headquarters, named after McDonnell. “That wasn’t just at McDonnell Douglas or in that industry but in the business world in general.

“People didn’t operate the way he thought they should be operating, and it became a mission of his to improve the general overall character of people.”
At his company, McDonnell had instituted corporate ethics training, Kuschel said. Now, he wanted to start developing the proper attitudes at an earlier stage of life.

“He was thinking about future generations,” he said. “What better way would there be to build a workforce of the future with higher character than to start when they’re young, start with the students.”

The program, then known as PREP, or the Personal Responsibility Education Program, started in the Clayton, Ferguson-Florissant, Hazelwood, Mehlville, Pattonville, Ritenour and University City districts. Officials with the program let each district work out on its own how it wanted to develop the character traits it was seeking in future executives, like responsibility, respect and honesty.

But it didn’t want to use some canned program off the shelf; it wanted to create its own, one that could be tailored to the St. Louis area.

Within a year PREP had doubled, Kuschel said, as districts that were involved saw discipline problems go down and academic performance head up. Grants from the government and from other sources helped the program spread throughout Missouri.

After 10 years, the affiliated programs at UMSL began, and more support helped the effort conduct research to demonstrate how effective character education could be on the lives – and more specifically, the test scores – of the students involved.

In 1999, the program’s name was changed to Characterplus as it continued to grow. Partnerships with the Cardinals, Rams and Blues helped more people discover it. This month, a student parade around Busch Stadium at a baseball game helped spread the word about bullying prevention, and a program at Rams Park will stress the importance of a holistic approach that combines physical fitness with character training.

One special area of emphasis has been the school bus, a place where restless students in a closed atmosphere can wind up behaving in ways that the program is dedicated to preventing.

“Often,” Kuschel said, “the first exposure students have to their peers and the last exposure of the day is on the bus. We’ve seen behavior captured on cameras that we wish wouldn’t have happened. So we can train bus drivers to help create a tone and create a higher character atmosphere, maybe even understand issues that students are bringing with them at the end of the day.”

Students against bullying

One morning this week, students from a number of area school districts met at the Magic House for a three-hour summit on bullying prevention designed to deal with and prevent an problem that often takes a new form on social media online.

They shared strategies to help deal with disruptive behavior and come up with ways that make their schools a comfortable place for all students to learn.

“When we show students the basics and empower them to change the climate of their school, we have awesome change,” said Tami Bopp, a program coordinator with Characterplus. “They find a way to be encouragers rather than sending out negative messages.”

Some of their positive messages were emblazoned on the back of the students’ T-shirts.

“Take a stand – lend a hand. Stop bullying now!” read some.

Others sported what was called the Bully Blockers’ pledge:

  • “I agree not to bully other students!
  • “I will help students who are bullied by speaking out and getting adult help!
  • “I will include students who are left out!”

Kristen Pelster, executive director of curriculum for the Fox schools in Jefferson County, recounted how she took over as principal of the district’s Ridgewood Middle School in 2000, at a time when the reputation of the school was not the best.
“The kids didn’t want to be there,” she recalled. “The teachers didn’t want to be there.”

After intensive character education training, it was one of nine schools across the United States honored in 2006 as a national school of character, and the district was the only one to win that distinction nationwide.

But, Pelster noted, such recognition can’t mean that schools sit back and take success for granted. “It’s something you constantly work on,” she said. “No one is ever perfect.”

The key, said Amy Richards, the Characterplus coordinator for Lindbergh schools, is combining competence with caring. "You have to have both,” she said. “You can’t have one without the other. It’s a culture of caring that nurtures academics.”

At the end of their session, the students held up their I Will pledges, promises of what they will take back to their classrooms, buses, locker rooms and parking lots to combat bullying.

“I will change what people think of each other,” one read.

“I will help make others feel good about themselves,” said another.

A third student put it this way

“I will prevent people from feeling left out.”

What they will try to prevent, some students said in interviews after their training, may not be what most people think of as bullying. With the advent of social media, much of the misbehavior happens online.

“We don’t see kids taking each other’s lunch money,” explained Arkayla Tenney-Howard, a junior at Belleville East High School. “It’s more outside of school. It’s not physical. It’s more name calling.”

After viewing a video about the problem, Carly Tribout, a junior at Belleville West, said she came away with a better understanding of how drastic the problem can be.

“It definitely gave you a new perspective on it,” she said. “I didn’t know it was that serious, and that people took things that far.”

Personal experience

Character education can also be taught from an adult perspective. Kuschel’s connection with Characterplus is personal as well as professional.

His brother Kevin was born with spina bifida, a condition that their sister, Karrie, also was born with. Hers was more severe, and she died in 1976, two weeks after Dave was born.

Kevin’s inability to walk has not limited his academic and career success, though. He was the first person with a disability to be hired as a teacher in the Hazelwood schools, where he teaches business at Hazelwood West High School. His condition and his story help him work with students to overcome their own obstacles. Dave Kuschel said he and his brother will be involved in presenting programs as part of Characterplus’s training of local educators.

“We have thought for years that we have a story to tell,” he said. “When our sister was born, our mom was 20-something years old. They took our sister away from her almost immediately and didn’t let our parents see her.

“Kevin was told his whole life, you can’t do this, why don’t you do that instead. He has overcome it every time.”

Those kinds of individual experiences can help make character education effective. And they can also help encourage individual schools and districts tailor the program to their own specific needs and situations.

In his leadership program at UMSL, Berkowitz said, that kind of personalization helps make the resulting lesson plans that the educators take back to their own classrooms most effective.

“We don’t have a curriculum or a program that we give them,” Berkowitz said. “We give them difference examples and sources and let them choose what they want to write about, what really tickles their fancy about what would work in their school.”

That kind of freedom, plus the results that research has demonstrated, help Characterplus sell itself, he said.

“You get everything from there is no more room in our school to do something like this to folks are saying this is great, we’re going to have academics and we’re going to have character. There’s plenty of data out there that says high quality character education is going to lead to better academic achievement.

“Some schools don’t believe it to begin with. The thing that sells them most is seeing what happens in other schools. The nice thing in this community is that Characterplus has been fertilizing and watering the soil for 25 years, so the culture has grown in the St. Louis community of much more understanding about this.”

Are schools worried that character education might sound too much like indoctrination, a program that could undermine families’ religious beliefs?

Berkowitz ticks off the basic values the program teaches – respect, caring, fairness, responsibility, honesty – and says he doesn’t usually have problems along those lines.

“That is one way to get people to understand this is not bad stuff, not stuff that will violate your fundamental values,” he said.

“I tell people that I don’t want to violate anything about their spiritual beliefs. I say I will tell you all of the values I want to teach – and you tell me which ones Jesus wouldn’t like.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.