Creating Character-Rich Communities

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I’ll admit it: I’ve got mixed feelings about character education classes – emphasis on “classes.” My gut instinct, first as a parent, then as a youth worker, is that these kinds of lessons are best learned when they’re embedded in other learning experiences and reinforced in life, particularly when the recipients are teens.

I was not surprised, then, when I scanned a recent Washington Post article recounting the less than enthusiastic reactions of affluent Virginia high school students to a mandatory character education class filled with videos, skits and inspirational speakers. The kids cheered when a fire alarm interrupted the class.

I gave the article a second look, however, after I reviewed my full pile of clippings for the week and juxtaposed it with two other stories.

The first reported on a pair of high school coaches in Missouri who took their girls’ and boys’ cross-country track teams to a fictitious meet in California, even making up results that were reported in the town paper. (A parent challenged the results.)

The coaches were fired. It was not clear whether the students were asked to lie about the meet.

The second story reported on a teen who assaulted a 4-year-old in a fast-food restaurant after the little boy accidentally got ice cream on her sleeve. The girl was 18 years old and almost nine months pregnant. She chased the child across the restaurant, pinned him in a headlock and smeared hot fries in his face, all while screaming obscenities.

The young woman was sentenced to 18 months in jail, with all but four days suspended, contingent upon her taking anger management and parenting classes.

These may be extreme examples, but they make it difficult to shrug off the efforts of schools to teach values. Perhaps in these post-Enron, anything-goes times, we need a second standards movement in education. It may be time to talk openly about what it takes to build character.

Do a Google search for “character education” and you’ll find the Character Education Partnership, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan, nonsectarian coalition of schools and nonprofits that offers 11 principles of effective character education. The coalition promotes concepts such as core ethical values, family and community partnerships, and caring school communities.

Research suggests that character education pays off for elementary and middle school youth, reducing high-risk and anti-social behaviors by as much as 50 percent. Evaluators acknowledge, however, that the effects of traditional practices are more powerful for younger youth than for high schoolers. Many existing programs are not realistic for teenagers and don’t offer enough opportunities for learning through experience.

While traditional character education classes may not be the answer in high school, something is clearly needed.

Maybe the answer is not character education classes, but character-rich communities, both in school and out. Communities like these are being created through many small and alternative schools across the country, including the one created by Roca, a ground-breaking, grassroots, youth-serving agency in Chelsea, Mass.

Roca’s philosophy is heavily influenced by the traditional practices of Native Americans, promoted by Larry Brendtro of Reclaiming Youth as a proactive way of engaging disenfranchised youth. Its efforts center on a trajectory of leadership development work that includes building “transformational relationships” – long-term bonds between youth and adults that encourage belonging and generosity.

Roca is one of the finest examples of values in action that I have ever seen. Its work requires everyone – staff, volunteers, family members and young people – to take a critical look at whether his actions and those of others are in line with the Roca communities’ values. Increasingly, Roca’s values are spreading beyond its doors. Roca youths can be seen breaking up fights on street corners or sitting in “Peacemaking Circles” – a time-honored communication technique – with school administrators.

In 2001, Roca received one of the coveted institution-building awards from the E.M. Clark Foundation. It celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, as it works to find ways to share the lessons it has learned with others.

We need more such efforts.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. This article and links to related readings, including the e-mail conversation described here, are available at