New Program Adds Character To Curriculum

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Few would disagree that parents have the primary role for teaching morals and values to their children, but more educators are becoming convinced that it is also important for schools to play a larger role in character education.

Reflecting this thinking and incorporating a character education initiative put forward by Governor Jane Hull, every school within the Payson Unified School District will soon be introducing a proven character education program called Character Counts.

Governor Hull set up a Character Education Commission in October 1999 to provide voluntary character education training to educators and nonprofit organizations throughout the state. Headed by grocery store magnate and former member of the state Board of Regents Eddie Basha, the commission is working with businesses, nonprofit organizations and educators to raise the money needed to implement character education pilot programs in a number of schools this year.

The eventual goal is to build a statewide Character Counts program in Arizona using private donations. The nonprofit Josephson Institute for Ethics, which originally developed the Character Counts program, is the same organization the Arizona Legislature hired to provide ethics training for its members following the AzScam bribery investigation and indictment of seven legislators nearly a decade ago.

"It is our responsibility as parents, grandparents, friends, educators and leaders to give our children the opportunity to grow into responsible, caring and respectful citizens," the governor said. "That is the goal of the Arizona Character Education Foundation, which will provide a voluntary, nonpartisan, nonreligious based character education training program throughout Arizona."

To help get the program up and running in Payson schools, two teachers and one parent from each school recently attended a three-day Character Counts Character Development Workshop sponsored by the state at the Inn of Payson. A contingent of Pine teachers also attended the workshop.

"The whole thing got started when Payson High School teacher Teri McKee went to a character education conference in California," Frontier Elementary School Principal Sue Meyers said.

McKee sold Superintendent Herb Weissenfels on the program, it was discussed at an administrator's retreat, and the teachers' workshop was scheduled. Those who attended will now go back to their schools and train the rest of their staffs.

Character Counts is a program designed to reduce youth violence, crime, pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases and other anti-social conduct. It was established in 1993 to raise awareness of the need to teach and model core values that are acceptable to liberals and conservatives as well as to secular and faith-based communities.

These core values, known as the "Six Pillars of Character," are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. In most schools that have adopted the program, the goal is to immerse the six pillars into every aspect of the school, including both curricular and noncurricular activities.

But each school within the Payson district will determine how the program can best be implemented to address the needs of its students and community. In areas of the country where Character Counts has already been instituted, McKee said, it works best as a multi-year, long-term program. If you have a preschooler," she said, "she's going to learn the six pillars in a goofy little song.

"Then in kindergarten, she'll hear it again and learn how to use the word 'caring.' In third grade, she'll hear the same thing, and there will be a character of the month program."

One of the first steps, McKee said, will be to train the teachers, to get them on board and behind the concept. "It's always best if the teachers buy into a program rather than to have it dictated to them," she said.

Jennifer Baker, a second-grade teacher at Frontier Elementary School who attended the workshop, is ready to go. "I'm just really excited about getting started," Baker said.

"At Frontier, we're already kicking around ideas. We're talking about introducing one pillar a month, about companies and organizations we can line up as sponsors, about forming a community board.

With many success stories in schools and youth-service organizations around the country, Character Counts has grown rapidly and has been adopted as a values-education framework for entire communities, cities and counties.

A 1999 survey involving more than 6,000 students in five counties in South Dakota, a state that implemented Character Counts several years ago, revealed that attitudes and behaviors were profoundly affected by the program. Students who drank six or more times, for example, decreased from 23 percent to 13 percent, students who never let their work be copied increased from 20 percent to 28 percent, students who never used drugs increased 10 percent, and students who volunteered between one and five times in the preceding month increased from 41 percent to 58 percent.

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