Times Education Writer Times Education Writer
When Kathy Perini became principal of Emperor Elementary School eight years ago, teachers peppered her with complaints about ill-behaved, unkind students.
These days, courteous sixth-graders at the school in San Gabriel volunteer to clean up the cafeteria and teach computer skills to younger pupils. Teachers fashion “integrity trees” to honor students’ good deeds. And youngsters formally pledge to show respect and compassion for others.
What made the difference was Values in Action, a character education program that teaches seven core ethical values, including responsibility and perseverance.
As educators and parents in the past decade have grappled with the whys of school violence and discipline problems, the teaching of values and moral principles in schools has surged in popularity. The push–endorsed by President Bush–is coming amid what many parents, educators and politicians perceive as the collapse of common courtesy and decency in society at large.
Events such as the March 5 shooting at Santana High School in suburban San Diego and the recent shutdown of SchoolRumors.com, a Web site where Southland students used explicit language to insult one another, bring the problem into sharp focus.
At least 48 states, California among them, have embraced educational standards for teaching character to students. In a 1996 survey by the National School Boards Assn., more than three-quarters of all districts said they had adopted or planned to adopt a character education initiative.
Values were clarified,not taught. The practice angered many parents, confused educators and generally “poisoned the well,” said Haynes, who is a board member of the Character Education Partnership, a nonpartisan organization that promotes such education. “It has taken us a long time to overcome that period,” Haynes added. “But educators now realize: Yes, we do stand for civic virtues and sharing moral values such as honesty and caring.”
At Emperor Elementary, a K-6 school that is part of the Temple City Unified School District, students are some of the most vocal fans of the character education program. Now in its seventh year, character education is woven into all subjects, from writing to physical education. One recent lesson required students to find Bush’s inaugural speech online and pull from it references to positive character traits. They then designed posters reflecting those values. During recess, students leave backpacks untended on outdoor tables because, they say, there is no problem with theft. Teachers at Emperor make it clear that they expect good behavior at all times. The idea is so ingrained that teachers “don’t even have to tell us anymore,” said Monica Suarez, 11, a sixth-grader who greeted a reporter on the playground one recent morning. “I think it has probably changed everybody’s outlook and how everybody treats people, with responsibility and respect,” said fifth-grader Samantha Harrison, 11. The lessons help her to feel more responsible at home, too. “If my parents ask me to pick up my clothes, I don’t wait till they get mad enough to yell,” she said.
Emperor’s program, which was cited as exemplary last year by the Character Education Partnership, has improved the climate for teachers, instructors say. “It really works. It makes working here a pleasure,” said Phyllis White, a second-grade teacher who has been at the school since 1984. Perini, the principal, said instructors can spend more time teaching because they worry less about problem “Our students aren’t disruptive,” Perini said. “We believe it directly impacts student achievement.” Though a link can’t be proved, the ethnically diverse, 621-student school ranks a 10, the highest possible score, on the state’s school accountability index. Perini said Emperor students are so accustomed to the civility at their school that they are sometimes caught unawares by the behavior of students elsewhere. “We want them to be kind but also resilient,” Perini said. “We want to prepare them for the harsh realities of life but still build in those qualities of respect and kindness.”