Good Citizens Understand Community, Engage Actively

This article was originally published on October 26, 2017. It has been slightly edited for length. 

Except for small groups of hermits, found here and there throughout human history, most human persons have lived in community since the earliest times. Perhaps it was first necessary for survival, but throughout the ages humans have formed communities and lived social lives for comfort and fulfillment.  

Customs, manners, and laws must be established if communities are to survive and flourish. Humanity’s ascent is flush with examples of evolving methods, meaning, and sophistication of humans in community. “Habits of the heart . . . [are] the sum of ideas that shape mental habits . . . the whole moral and intellectual state of a people,” claimed Alexis de Tocqueville. Citizenship is a practical response to the needs of each and every community. 

But there is another aspect to add. If we are not fully human except in community, not selves except in relation to other selves (as Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, David Riesman, and many other thinkers argue), then how we engage with others is essential to our humanity. If we understand ourselves through relationships, then how we order our relationships is of critical importance. 

Finally if we are to truly embrace and sustain the principles of an advanced democracy, we must realize that there can be no democracy without the collective energies and coherent engagement of persons living in the democracy. Citizenship embraces the multi-faceted behaviors, relationships, and commitments necessary for civil society to function and for human persons to fully flourish. It is essential that we afford our youth the opportunities to understand deeply these principles and to begin to explore how they will engage as full-fledged members of a civil society. Equipping our young with the concepts that underpin these dual objectives of human flourishing and engagement in the common good is the work of forming good citizens in the fullest sense. 

Two things are required to accomplish this work—and schools play a vital role in their realization. First, individuals need to understand themselves as selves entering the public square. Second, they need to understand what it means to participate actively in the communities in which they are engaged.  

Educators tasked with this developmental responsibility must first make sense of their own relationship to the common good and their communities. This process of discovery will yield insights into how a human person forms attachments and the individual strengths necessary to fully participate, properly serve, and ultimately to exercise the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship.  

Civic Education and the Voting Booth

With the primary season now underway, a study has just been released finding that a network of charter schools appears to have improved students’ civic participation as adults through a focus on attitudes and activities, not just knowledge. The findings could prove valuable for schools in other sectors, from traditional public schools to religious and independent schools.

The study comes at a time of frequent pessimism over students’ proficiency in civics. Sarah Shapiro and Catherine Brown of the Center for American Progress have written:

While the 2016 election brought a renewed interest in engagement among youth, only 23 percent of eighth-graders performed at or above the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam, and achievement levels have virtually stagnated since 1998. In addition, the increased focus on math and reading in K–12 education—while critical to preparing all students for success—has pushed out civics and other important subjects.

Shapiro and Brown also note that “state civics curricula are heavy on knowledge but light on building skills and agency for civic engagement.” This omission may be contributing to low voter turnout and lean participation in local politics.


Policymakers have tried to remedy the situation through various means, including making the test for naturalization as a US citizen a high school graduation requirement. reported,

Recently, 14 states considered bills to incorporate content from the naturalization test. Four states—Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Washington—adopted those bills into law. Twenty states already had requirements related to that test: Some require passing an exam based on it to graduate from high school; others loop it into a half-credit civics requirement.

However, there is a difference between passing a class or a test and becoming civically engaged as an adult. In Making Civics Count: Citizenship Education for a New GenerationDavid Campbell argues for the vital importance of a school’s “ethos” in predicting long-term civic engagement. He writes,

By ethos, I mean the norms encouraged, shared, and “enforced” within a school community—such as interpersonal trust and an expectation of public engagement. While perhaps not as easy to observe as classroom instruction, extant research indicates that a school’s ethos has a substantial, and enduring, effect on the civic engagement of its students.

The idea of a pervasive and reinforced ethos is further explored in The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation, which discusses the importance of a “thick” moral ecology in the shaping of character and citizenship.


The kind of ethos described by Campbell, characterized specifically by an “expectation of public engagement,” has been the stated focus of a network of open-enrollment, high-performing charter schools called Democracy Prep. Serving more than 6,500 students in five cities, mostly from low-income families of color, its mission is “to educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and life of active citizenship.”


If a life of active citizenship can be at least partially measured by adult voting registration and voting rates, Democracy Prep is succeeding. Mathematica Policy Research, founded in 1968, recently conducted a study comparing Democracy Prep graduates with individuals who were not selected by the random entrance lottery. Mathematica reported that


  • We find a 98 percent probability that enrolling in Democracy Prep produced a positive impact on voter registration, and a 98 percent probability that enrolling produced a positive impact on voting in the 2016 election.
  • Democracy Prep increases the voter registration rates of its students by about 16 percentage points and increases the voting rates of its students by about 12 percentage points.


This proof of adult engagement after graduation is arresting, and it naturally prompts the question, How did they do it? According to founder Seth Andrew, learning facts about civics is not enough. Democracy Prep’s approach is threefold, emphasizing civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic dispositions in a deliberate sequence. He told Education Next:

We need more civics taught in middle and high schools, but that doesn’t mean having a boring one-semester course requirement. It means creating outcome expectations around civic skills and knowledge. Lots of states now mandate x amount of civics in high school. I think that’s the wrong way to think about it, because it focuses on input as opposed to outcomes. In the Democracy Prep civic-outcomes model, we actually don’t teach “civics.” There is no standalone “civics” course. However, there is a course on the “sociology of change,” a course on economics, and a senior seminar on American democracy. We require a “change the world” project for seniors, and we hold Election Day get-out-the-vote campaigns at least once every year … What we’re trying to do is remind the world that “civic education” is not about a specific course; it’s about the public purpose of education and putting citizenship first.

Democracy Prep’s emphasis on citizenship is unusual. But the researchers who studied its success pointed out,

its success in raising the registration and voting rates of the low-income minority students it serves provides a proof point for charter schools and conventional public schools alike: an education focused on preparation for citizenship can in fact increase students’ civic participation when they reach adulthood. Renewed attention to the foundational purpose of public schools might broadly increase civic participation across the country.

A long-term study of a school’s impact on students’ behavior post-graduation—complete with a valid control group—is a rarity, and the findings of this one are particularly encouraging. Beyond an affirmation of the efforts of Democracy Prep, they may point the way for other schools seeking to instill civic engagement. And in a country where young people are often characterized as politically apathetic, this is good news indeed.

NY students interview vets, use stories to create interactive book

Fourth graders in Pittsford, New York’s Thornell Road Elementary School are making some new friends in their community and chronicling their stories in a book about service and sacrifice.

Teacher Toni Stevens-Oliver’s class recently interviewed 23 veterans from the Rayson-Miller American Legion Post 899 to get an intimate understanding of why they joined the service and how it shaped their lives. The students then chronicled the stories in a new book called “Veteran’s Voices” – which also features an online app to view videos of the veterans in their own words, WHAM reports.

“The book was a way for us to connect one-on-one personally a student with a veteran and get to know each other through the veteran telling their story and the student writing that story,” Stevens-Oliver told the news site.

The veterans “were blown away by the interest the students showed, the respect the children showed,” she said. “We hope our book inspires people to ask their local veterans what their story is.”

Students told WHAM they learned a lot from the class project.

“Freedom isn’t free, and the veterans sacrificed a lot of things,” student James Kazacos said. “They sacrificed time with their family, holidays.”

“They are just like normal people, except that they step up and do a job that takes courage,” classmate Jake Schreyer added.

Al Herdkoltz, commander of the Rayson-Miller post, said the effort gives him hope the stories of local veterans will not be forgotten.

“They actually had an interest and they were my friends,” he said. “I felt very comfortable and at ease. I felt I had a new friendship even though there was quite a bit of age difference, they were my friends.”

Steven-Oliver shared the project on Shutterfly and posted supporting documents to her Pittsford Schools website as a template for teachers looking to pursue a similar project. The school page also features a special shout out from Sen. Rich Funke acknowledging students’ hard work.

“To take the time to not only interview our veterans, but to take those interviews and incorporate them into an interactive book was special, not just to them but to all of us who care about our veterans,” Funke said in a video message.

Researchers at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture stress the importance of developing a sense of responsibility for and ownership of something larger than students’ self-interests. In The Content of Their Character, researchers noted how rural schools are particularly strong at fostering connections to broader spheres of moral obligation through immigration, religion and the military.

“In addition to building greater knowledge of cultures and societies outside of the U.S.,” researchers wrote, great teachers “were aiming primarily to build social-perspective taking, empathy and general critical thinking skills.”

Much of the work centers on gratitude, and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues offers a plethora of research on the subject, including the public’s perception of gratitude and links between the virtue and service.

“More recently, the Centre has extended its focus on gratitude by examining the effects of teaching interventions on comprehensions of gratitude and related virtues,” according to the website.

IN history teacher brings Pledge of Allegiance to life through personal connections

Greensburg High School history teacher John Pratt is bringing the Pledge of Allegiance to life in a unique way that’s inspiring students to think big.

Pratt explained his very simple idea for the pledge to the Indianapolis Star: “Each day we have someone different from the community in to lead us.”

So far, those people have included Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, astronaut David Wolf, former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, journalists and cartoonists for the Star, Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, and dozens of other inspiring characters.

In some cases those who participate call in, or video conference, while others visit the rural school in person to connect with students. Pratt told the Star that arranging a new person to lead the pledge each day can be a chore, but it’s a worthwhile effort to offer up role models who love and respect America.

“I love saying the pledge every day because it gives me an opportunity to thank those who served our country,” he said. “In particular those in my family.”

Many of the distinguished guests share inspiring stories with students that encourage them to dream big, a concept Pratt first developed as a teacher near Lake Chautauqua, New York two decades ago. There, Pratt revived a 19th century program called Chautauqua that brought in notable speakers to share their unique lives. Many had overcome life-altering challenges, such as the Holocaust, life without a limb, or the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

And while the program at Greensburg High School involves less interaction than the in-depth lectures in New York, it’s clearly inspiring students to reflect on their civic responsibilities and character.

“It’s an awesome project that Mr. Pratt put together. It makes you more attentive,” Greenburg High School senior Walker Taylor told the Star. “It makes you want to put more effort into the pledge because there is someone with a different history in here every day.”

Pratt believes it’s a program all schools could benefit from to make significant broader impact.

“I teach students to be idealists. And wouldn’t it be cool if once a month every school had a guest leader for the Pledge of Allegiance?” he told the Star. “There are hundreds of dignitaries in Indiana. Wouldn’t it be great if each one took 60 seconds out of the schedule to phone in the Pledge of Allegiance with any school. Think of the value that would have.”

Research from the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia shows parents undoubtedly support Pratt’s mission.

A 2016 survey summarized in “The Vanishing Center of American Democracy” found that “eight of 10 (respondents) … agree that ‘America is an exceptional nation with a special responsibility to lead the world.’

“Overwhelmingly (93%), they also describe themselves as patriotic,” according to the report.

Educators considering their role in promoting patriotism in students could consider education activist Diane Ravitch’s article “Should We Teach Patriotism?

Ravitch reviews her take on the history of patriotism in American schools, as well as thoughts on the proper way to convey the concept to students.

“If … we teach civic education and define patriotism as a respectful understanding and appreciation of the principles and practices of democratic self-government, then patriotism should be woven through the daily life and teachings of the public schools,” Ravitch wrote.


Student patriotism at ID elementary goes viral, highlights influence of school employees

When Idaho mother Amanda Reallan arrived at Hayden Meadows Elementary to pick up her kids after school one day last month, what she witnessed compelled her to take a photo and post it online.

Before long, the picture went viral, prompting near universal applause from across the internet.

The picture showed three fifth graders struggling to keep the American flag from touching the ground as they retrieved it for the day, with one of the boys literally lying on the ground to prevent it from touching, KREM reports.

“We’ve had a bunch of close calls,” according to Jack LeBreck, who laid his body on the line to protect Old Glory. “But I thought it would happen because it was kind of a windy day. So I just thought of laying down … and seeing what would happen.”

The boys, all Cub Scouts, were selected for the task by school custodian Mac McCarty, a 20-year veteran in the U.S. Air Force who taught them everything they know about flag etiquette.

“It was all because of our custodian, Mr. Mac,” LeBreck said.

“What they did yesterday was obviously all of them … laying on the ground and all that,” McCarty said. “And I’m very proud.”

The inspiring photo was shared more than 2,000 times in just the one day following the patriotic act. The students, amazed by the online reaction, said the flag duty is an honor they don’t take lightly.

“It’s really a great privilege,” said Casey Dolan, who was also in the photo with classmate Nalan Tuttle. “I feel really lucky I was chosen for it.”

Reallan told KREM she was “overwhelmed with pride” when she came across the boys last month, and she’s glad to see the positive attention it’s focused on the community.

“They did themselves proud, they did their families proud, they did their school proud, and I am very proud of them,” McCarty said.

The students’ initiative to protect the flag is a timely reminder of the nature of morality.

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, wrote in “The Tragedy of Moral Education in America”:

Morality is a vision of moral good shared by a community; the attitudes, aspirations, sensibilities, and dispositions that define its highest aspiration for itself, and how those moral goods find expression in every situation in daily life.

McCarty is a prime example of how school employees, as well as educators, have the power to not only positively influence students, but also many others in the community and beyond.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues has a very interesting article, Living Within Reason, that outlines the thinking of Thomas Aquinas on cardinal virtues that lead to a good and just life.

Teachers and principals working to strengthen students’ character could ways to incorporate the pursuit of these virtues as part of the daily experience of students.

Growing percentage of superintendents concerned about preparing students to be good citizens

A 2018 survey of K-12 superintendents found that the percentage of district leaders concerned about students graduating unprepared to participate for civic life increased drastically over the last year.

Gallup conducted 1,892 web interviews with superintendents across the U.S. over the summer and asked them to identify the biggest challenges facing their districts for the coming year. And while recruiting and retaining talented teachers was the top concern, a drastically higher percentage pointed to preparing students for engaged citizenship than in previous years, Education Dive reports.

“Gallup asked superintendents most of the same items included in this year’s survey in 2017, as well as in 2013,” according to the report, “Leadership Perspectives on Public Education, The Gallup 2018 Survey of K-12 School District Superintendents.”

“The biggest change since last year is a spike in the percentage who agree that preparing students for engaged citizenship will be a challenge, which is up 24 percentage points from a year ago when just half regarded it as a challenge,” Gallup reports. “To some degree, this may be an acknowledgement of the increasingly contentious and polarized political environment in the U.S. It could also be a reaction to the prominent student activism on gun violence that occurred after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting earlier this year. About half, 51%, also saw preparing students for engaged citizenship as a challenge in 2013.”

Education Dive pointed to other troubling signs.

“Recent years have seen a growing realization that many students are making it through the K-12 education system inadequately prepared for civic participation. This is evident from the way people interact in online forums and shout each other down in face-to-face town hall meetings, as well as in late-night show street interviews that lampoon the general public’s inability to answer random questions from a citizenship test or name one member of Congress,” according to the education site.

Several states are strengthening civics graduation requirements, in some cases requiring students to pass a citizenship test to receive a diploma, while the National Education Association teachers’ union and others promote service work, and a focus on critical thinking and civil debate, to help turn around the trend.

“Simply put: Like other skill sets, providing opportunities to put what is being learned into action is critical for effective instruction,” according to Education Dive.

It may also be critical to healing the country’s divides.

In his book “The Death of Character,” Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter offers esteemed sociologist Charles Moskos’ perspective on the importance of developing a shared sense of civic virtue.

“ … (A)s Charles Moskos put it, ‘Because of the relative weakness of other forms of community …, out cohesion depends upon a civic ideal rather than on primordial loyalties,’” Hunter wrote. “In this way, service-learning as a vehicle of civic education can be a means by which communities are drawn together again.”

Educators who want to bridge political divides and help students engage in their communities can find a wealth of resources through CIVITAS, a comprehensive K-12 model for civic education developed with the help of dozens of leading scholars and classroom teachers from across the country.


Texas teen fights expulsion for sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance

A Texas high schooler is fighting to reverse an expulsion decision for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, an act of defiance she argues is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

“I don’t think that the flag is what it says it’s for, for liberty and justice and all that,” Windfern High School senior India Landry said last year after she was sent home. “It’s not obviously what’s going on in America today.”

Kizzy Landry, the now 18-year-old student’s mother, contends school officials initially would not provide details about why the girl was expelled last year, though a principal later said “she can’t come to my school if she won’t stand for the pledge,” USA Today reports.

India told KHOU she sat through the pledge on previous occasions without issue, despite state law that requires a parent’s signature to do so. The situation prompted the Landrys to file a federal lawsuit against the Cy-Fair Independent School District, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton intervened in the lawsuit late last month to defend the expulsion.

“Schoolchildren cannot unilaterally refuse to participate in the pledge,” Paxton said in a statement, which also noted Texas is one of 26 states that require a parent’s signature. “Requiring the pledge to be recited at the start of every school day has the laudable result of fostering respect for our flag and a patriotic love of our country.”

Laundry’s attorney, Randall Kallinen, shrugged off Paxton’s involvement as a political ploy, and noted the punishment came one week after President Trump criticized NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

“We are confident that, based upon the law, that Ms. Landry will prevail and she will once again be able to sit for the pledge of allegiance,” he told KHOU.

An informal survey by KHOU found roughly 85 percent of viewers online agreed with the effort to require students to stand for the Pledge, while only 15 percent believe students have the right to choose.

That’s seemingly consistent with a 2016 survey by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture outlined in “The Vanishing Center of American Democracy.”

The study found:

“Eight of ten (81%) (of respondents) … agree that ‘America is an exceptional nation with a special responsibility to lead the world.’ Overwhelmingly (93%), they also describe themselves as patriotic.”

The American Civil Liberties Union offers resources for students and teachers that outline free speech rights in public schools, covering topics from silent protests, to walkouts, to political clothing in the classroom.

“If you’re a public school student, you don’t check your constitutional rights at the schoolhouse doors,” according to the ACLU website. “But whether schools can punish you for speaking out depends on when, where, and how you decide to express yourself.”


Students leaders blend lessons from military, sports to serve a greater purpose

Two student athletes at George Washington University are sharing how the lessons they’ve learned through years of military training and team sports have prepared them to excel as leaders.

Senior Riley Tejcek, an infielder on the George Washington University softball team, participated in the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course over the last two summers, and sophomore swimmer and diver Nick Tomczyk is simultaneously training for the Naval Reserves.

And while the physical aspects of the military programs have undoubtedly helped to keep the students in top form, both contend it’s the military’s leadership mentality of serving a higher purpose that has benefitted them the most, the GW Hatchet reports.

“It’s all about the team unit, it’s not about you, it’s about the people next to you,” Tejcek said. “That’s the important thing, is it’s not about you.”

The students discussed their grueling schedules, from early morning workouts before a day full of classes to rigorous military training sessions and Division I championships.

“Once I’m done with one thing, I focus on the next thing and that’s how I get through it,” said Tomcyzk, a squad leader in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Crops. “I take it one step at a time each day.”

Tomcyzk said he’s using lessons learned in the water to guide his seven-person platoon.

“Being a part of a team definitely helps because I’m learning from the captains of the swim and dive team how they’re being leaders,” he said. “I can take stuff off of them and transfer it to the unit to be a leader.”

Tejcek said the selfless approach to team work in the Marine Corps mirrored her approach as captain of the softball team, both providing the “rewarding experience” of serving something bigger then herself.

“Those are the people that are going to impact me the rest of my life,” she said. “Above all else is the relationships with people I’ve met along the way that keeps me going and keeps me motivated, absolutely.”

Researchers at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture discussed the “thick” and “dense” moral culture common in the military and team sports in “The Content of Their Character,” a summary of character education programs in a variety of U.S. high schools.

Through numerous interviews and observations, researchers noted “the source and setting for moral and civic education matter – that the ‘thickness’ of cultural endowments and the ‘density’ of moral community within which those endowments find expression are significant in the formation of personal and public virtue in children.”

The career site The Balance Careers offers an outline of the United States Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course for students and school counselors exploring career options. The program involves a very dense moral community through weeks-long summer training sessions, while offering tax-free monthly stipends, tuition assistance and training pay.

Upon graduating from college, students are commissioned as officers in the U.S. Marines and go on to attend six months of basic training.

Students march on September 11 to honor first responders

Students at Muskogee, Oklahoma’s Early Childhood Center may not fully understand the gravity of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but they’re getting a sense of the American spirit that brought the country together in the wake of that horrific day.

“This is great to see 4-year-old children honor and remember what this day means for our country,” District Attorney Orvil Loge told the Muskogee Phoenix as children paraded down Broadway waiving tiny American flags.

The youngsters spent the 17th anniversary of 9/11 participating in an annual march the school has held since 2002 to pay tribute to those who lost their lives, as well as local first responders who keep the community safe.

“Ever since then, it’s just gotten bigger and better,” ECC Principal Malinda Lindsey said.

Lindsay told the news site the intent is to focus on character virtues like cooperation, respect and citizenship, while getting kids out in the community to show their patriotism.

This year’s march kicked off with an assembly to give thanks to veterans and first responders, followed by a walk to the Muskeogee Public Schools Board of Education Service and Technology Center, where administrators dolled out cookies and congratulations.

A large fire truck, police cruisers and an ambulance escorted the children, who wore crafted paper hats, American flags and chanted “USA, USA!”

“It’s so fun to just watch them walk down the street,” Muskogee Public Schools Superintendent Jarod Mendenhall told the Phoenix. “They seem to be really excited about it.”

The superintendent said the march is part of the district’s effort to promote citizenship “and being part of our country.”

“And I think this starts early,” he said. “Doing this parade is one of those moments you can do that with kids and teach them it’s really important to be a good citizen and celebrate being an American.”

Researchers at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture point out that the way school teach citizenship matters as much as the content of citizenship because character and citizenship are formed through shared social practices.

IASC founder James Davison Hunter wrote in “The Death of Character”:

Character is not … solitary, autonomous, unconstrained; merely a set of traits within a unique and unencumbered personality. Character is very much social in its constitution. It is inseparable from the culture within which it is found and formed.

The Association for Citizenship Teaching offers numerous resources for educators and others to help students develop the knowledge, skills and understanding to participate as active and responsible citizens.

Those resources include a Citizenship Curriculum, as well as projects, journals, awards and other advice.

AL schools connect students with heroes from history to develop character and civic responsibility

Dothan City Schools is launching a new civics education initiative that will help connect hundreds of Alabama middle school students with role models from American history to tackle subjects like character development, civic responsibility, financial literacy and others.

“Not everyone has great examples of character building in our lives, so to have a component like this in our school system, where we are investing again in our youth, is a huge peace that will come back to pay large dividends for our community,” Dothan Mayor Mark Saliba said at a press conference announcing the new “American Character Program” in August.

The program is a joint venture between DCS, the Liberty Learning Foundation, and the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce, which donated $30,000 to bring the program to about 650 students at Girard, Honeysuckle, Beverlye Magnet, and Carver middle schools, the Dothan Eagle reports.

Patti Yancey, who founded the Liberty Learning Foundation provide “civic education programs and live experience that improve child, community and country,” told those in attendance at the Girard Middle School press conference that the 10- to 12-week program focused on building students’ character wouldn’t be possible without buy in from school officials and other local leaders.

“One person can’t do it by themselves; one organization can’t do it by themselves,” she said. “(DCS Superintendent) Dr. Edwards, (DCS Director of Curriculum) Teresa Davis, and (DCS Board Chairman) Mike Schmitz are just great at putting their money where their mouth is, and putting their purpose where their mouth is of truly seeing the whole child and not just the academic side.”

Darius McKay, principal of Girard Middle School, agreed that the American Character Program will undoubtedly have a positive impact on students in the school this year, but said he expects a ripple effect that could carry over for years to come.

“(When siblings of middle school students) look up to their middle school brother or sister and see they’re setting a good example, that may rub off on you,” McKay said. “(The program) will encourage students to have conversations about doing the right thing and honoring your country and things of that nature.”

“As our kids have conversations about what’s right to do,” he said, “incidents of wrong things won’t happen.”

James Davison Hunter, author of “The Death of Character,” points out that helping students develop a sense of morality – through historic role models or other means – is a crucial component of effective character education.

“(W)e must acquire a moral sensibility – we learn what is right and wrong, good and bad, what is to be taken seriously, ignored, or rejected as abhorrent – and we learn, in moments of uncertainty, how to apply our moral imagination to different circumstances,” Hunter wrote. “Over time, we acquire a sense of obligation and the discipline to follow them.”

For students and adults alike, the sense of obligation comes with a desire to help others through service projects or other contributions to the community. The nonprofit Learning to Give offers a starting point for helping students develop their passion, or “spark,” and “build self-efficacy, empathy for others, and confidence in one’s ability to do something to make a difference in the world.”

“Developing and nurturing one’s spark is the result of a three-part formula. First, you have to know your spark. Second, you need three champions (family, school, community) who help you develop your spark. Third, you must have the opportunity and the freedom to develop your spark,” according to “When students follow this formula, they not only find their spark, they thrive with it and experience school success, engagement, compassion and a sense of purpose.”