Values education invades the District’s schools.

It’s a sunny Friday morning, and light pierces through the windows and the swaying blinds in the gymnasium of an antiquated school near Union Station. Inside, assorted speakers lecture to yawns, whispers, fluttering eyelids, and the occasional cell-phone ring. One presenter feels himself losing his audience and tells a joke. It bombs.

Though it’s a school day, the individuals sitting on uncomfortable folding chairs at the Logan Professional Development Resource and Training Center are not students. Rather, they’re teachers attending the D.C. Public Schools Character Education Model Fair—and getting a dose of their own medicine.

Eight different organizations are offering their programs in what’s become known as “character education”—an umbrella term for an instructive approach that seeks to combat disciplinary problems in troubled schools by explicitly teaching core values to students in an academic setting.

The idea of teaching values in school might rub some the wrong way. After all, whose values will be taught? Many ethicists agree, however, that there is nothing inherently wrong with the approach.

“School is a value-oriented organization; we cannot avoid this,” says R.C. Saravanabhavan, an associate professor of educational administration at Howard University. “We have been dealing with [this issue] since the beginning of formal schooling. The ambivalence of this situation is that our society expects schools to impart value-oriented behavior and at the same time we still have not arrived at one set of such behaviors acceptable to all.”

Andrea Grenadier is the director of communications for the Character Education Partnership (CEP)—a nonprofit, D.C.-based national coalition that serves as a leading advocate and resource provider in the movement. She says that such programs “create a school environment—socially and academically—which helps children become not just really good learners, but good people as well.”

The federal government and the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) have bought into the concept. This past spring, the U.S. Department of Education awarded District schools a five-year grant totaling $1 million to help implement character-education programs. The money—distributed evenly among its 11 recipients—will allow six elementary schools, two middle schools, and three high schools to train teachers in character education.

Some observers point to the spate of school shootings in the United States between 1997 and 1999 as a catalyst for the character-education movement, but Grenadier doesn’t entirely agree with that assessment. “I think people look for easy flash points,” she says, “but the fact that improving school atmosphere became a higher priority as a result of the shootings cannot be disputed.

“After Columbine, [people] were talking about character ed,” Grenadier continues, “but a lot of these people were looking for the quick fix. That’s when you heard about [installing] metal detectors [in schools]. Metal detectors are a nice Band-Aid, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. Doing character ed and making it happen takes time and commitment, and it’s not easy. But you tell me anything in life that’s worthwhile that’s a quick fix.”

Any quickness in character education, in fact, has been in the increase in the number of organizations attempting to sell their vision (and version) of it. Character education has become a growth industry, and the programs from which to choose are plentiful. “There’s a lot out there,” admits Grenadier, “and a lot of the calls I get are from people who just don’t know where to begin.”

Several character-education programs have a large presence in the District’s schools, but the system that’s generating the most buzz is known as ValuesFirst—the brainchild of a locally based philanthropist group, the Peter N.G. Schwartz Foundation.

“In 1994, the foundation was looking for initiatives to help children in the city,” recalls Peter Schwartz, the organization’s executive director. Among the people with whom he talked was Linda Moody, who served as president of the D.C. Parent Teacher Association. Schwartz says that Moody “had an idea that needed to be gotten off the ground, which was to bring values back into the neighborhood, and she thought this could be done by bringing the values into the schools at the elementary-school level.”

Schwartz created ValuesFirst, a nonprofit corporation, to do just that, and worked with local educational experts to develop a program called the Values Code Initiative. Thus far, 29 local schools have signed on officially to ValuesFirst.

A former real estate developer, Schwartz takes on the air of a late-night infomercial pitchman as he talks earnestly about his program’s “Six Building Blocks”—methods through which teachers can infuse their curricula with values-oriented lessons. The 13 values that Schwartz’s program preaches trip lightly from his tongue: honesty, respect, responsibility, self-control, hard work, self-respect, concern for others, tolerance, cooperation, fairness, forgiveness, courage, and self-knowledge.

In the ValuesFirst model, teachers are instructed on how to weave values “into the tapestry” of the classroom, often discussing them within the context of a story the class is reading, or events in the students’ own lives, rather than merely explaining them in an abstract way.

The program also urges that “Values Codes” be placed throughout the school and recited by students at the beginning of the school day. (Example: “Honesty. I will be an honest person.”)

Another character-education model with currency in the District’s schools is promoted by Community of Caring, another national group based in D.C.

“The school absolutely has a civic and citizenship mission,” says Kristin Fink, executive director of Community of Caring. “Part of that mission is building the next generation of citizens, and that requires moral literacy.”

Fink says that more than 300 schools in the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area use her group’s program, which was founded in 1982 as a Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation project originally geared toward reducing teen pregnancy and helping the mentally handicapped. In the two decades since it was established, the Community of Caring system has evolved into a character-education program that preaches core ethical values (including caring, respect, responsibility, trust, and family) in a holistic fashion.

“It isn’t an add-on curriculum,” explains Fink. “In other words, we don’t go in and say ‘Here’s the curriculum—teach it.’ What we say is ‘Look at your own curriculum to find the natural places that these values play out, because they are everywhere.’” Community of Caring trains teachers on how to bring such values into the normal class lessons, and students participate in activities called “Big Friendly Groups” and “Best Buddy Programs,” to foster relationships and cut down on bullying.

The ValuesFirst and Community of Caring programs are similar in most respects, except price. Community of Caring estimates a first-year cost of $4,000 to $5,500 (or $8 to $11 per student) for an average elementary school. ValuesFirst currently is provided free to participating DCPS schools.

“We decided to make it free basically because the school system’s budget [makes it] very difficult for them to come up with the funds to do this, especially for multiple years,” explains Schwartz. “And we think that this is such a powerful community initiative that if we can raise the money from outside sources, then that’s the way it should be done.”

At some point in the future, says Schwartz, ValuesFirst will start charging DCPS from $10 to $15 per student. But its current price tag is likely among the reasons that it was endorsed by DCPS Superintendent Paul Vance in an Oct. 23 letter to District principals. Georgia Booker, DCPS Director of Counseling Services, named a more basic reason for Vance’s support of the ValuesFirst model. “The bottom line,” she says, “is the schools where they’ve implemented the program have gotten good results.”

Some D.C.-area schools are making efforts to improve their atmosphere without using any of the character-education programs that have targeted them.

Mount Rainier Elementary School is located in a hilly, impoverished neighborhood just across the Maryland border, where drugs and crime are rampant. When Phil Catania became principal 14 years ago, the school was a rough place, and a fight of some kind marred over 40 percent of the school days.

In 2001, however, Mount Rainier Elementary has become a DIY beacon of sorts for troubled schools. The CEP recognized it in October as a National School of Character for being a “model of effective character education.” Catania and his staff found success outside of formal systems, instead rooting their approach in a system of small, mostly symbolic, rewards that students can earn for displays of virtue.

“A lot of people say it might be bribing kids,” says Catania. “But what we’re doing is rewarding and recognizing positive efforts. And kids need it.”

All through the day, Catania interrupts his paperwork to greet students who come to his office seeking an official stamp for paper certificates issued by teachers for acts of kindness. Examples include the “Super Eagle Award” and the “Passport.”

The principal also goes out of his way to interact with students as he notarizes their awards. “Now get out of here and stop bothering me!” he jokingly tells two children who have come to get their names posted on the “Peace Tree”—a large, paper tree taped to Catania’s office wall.

“[The Peace Tree] I’ve had since Day One,” explains the former teacher, “and this has always been good, because this gets teachers to look for positive things out of children. A lot of times, teachers get stuck with the negative.”

The schoolwide results at Mount Rainier have been remarkable. Five years ago, the school held a parade in celebration of its first year with 160 “Peace Days,” or days without physical or egregious verbal violence. It’s an achievement the school’s students have repeated every year since.

More tellingly, the students themselves say they feel safer. “I used to be picked on by a lot of people in my old school—I had like five bullies on me,” remembers sixth-grader Harold Martinez. “And it was trouble walking home, because they had to always follow me and try to beat me up. My friends would just say, ‘Fight back,’ or something, but I didn’t want to fight back. I like this school [because] there are no bullies here.” CP