St. Louis program focuses on ‘character instead of curriculum’

AESM Middle School in downtown St. Louis is implementing a new character education program in hopes it will make a positive impact on students’ lives well into the future.

“If you don’t have good character traits,” principal Ceandre Perry told KMOV, “students can struggle in the real world.”

“So we want to make sure we’re equipping them right now with those ideas in order for them to be successful in high school and go on into the real world,” he said.

The news site highlighted how the “new school program focuses on character instead of curriculum.”

“Instead of focusing on just math and science, it stresses nonacademic growth that will help students long after they leave school,” KMOV reports.

The three-year “Character Plus” program was funded through an unspecified grant.

KMOV provides very few details on what the program actually entails, but the news report illustrates a fundamental problem facing character education, as well as other important issues like moral formation, and social and emotional learning in schools: they’re viewed as education extras that are not necessarily elements of a “real” or traditional academic curriculum.

The fact is, whether or not educators and the media formally acknowledge character education or moral formation, students are learning both through daily life at home and at school. It’s often part of a “hidden curriculum” that will determine if students lead a flourishing life, or something else.

Plenty of students get straight As in school, but flunk life miserably.

An intentional focus on character and morality in the daily school rituals is a positive step in the right direction, but it’s only one of several important elements. Character education programs that are ultimately successful also push students and teachers to commit to a particular view of reality.

If a program is not rooted in strong particular commitments, what the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture terms “particularity,” then it will not withstand the assaults of daily life.

The Community School for Social Justice in the South Bronx and the Ron Brown High School in Washington, D.C., are two examples of public high schools with very strong particular commitments.

VA’s Short Pump Middle School struggles with racism and bullying

Hundreds of parents and concerned citizens poured into a meeting last week at Short Pump Middle School to discuss a video of students on the school’s football team sexually bullying black teammates.

Some folks chastised school officials for ignoring problems with racism at the Glen Allen, Virginia, school, while others alleged more videos show students of various races participating in the harassment. The turmoil serves as the latest example of the ongoing issues with bullying in American schools, and highlights the dire need for intentional character education to combat the problem.

The Short Pump incident occurred Oct. 13 in the school’s locker room, where some players simulated sex acts against black players, and the antics were recorded on video and shared with an allegedly racist caption, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.

Many of the nearly 400 people who attended the Oct. 25 meeting focused on the race of victims in the video.

“There is a systemic problem of racism and bullying at Short Pump Middle School that is not being addressed,” parent Ngozi Ibe told Henrico County schools officials. “I feel like there is no specific policy to address racism and bullying.”

Other parents condemned the sexual harassment, but alleged the video is misleading.

“There were multiple unedited videos made in the locker room of a few adolescent boys from multiple racial background behaving very badly,” read parent Cheri David from a prepared statement from several parents of players on the team, according to the Times-Dispatch.

District and school officials convened the Wednesday night meeting to update the public on how they’re handling the situation, and actions they’ve taken to prevent similar situations in the future.

Officials canceled the football team’s season, but allowed practices to continue with mandatory discussions on racial tolerance and ethics. They also fired one of the team’s coaches and formed a districtwide committee “to monitor and advise on issues related to equity, race relations, tolerance and ethics,” the news site reports.

“The need is greater than just this community,” superintendent Patrick Kinlaw said at the meeting. “There’s much more work that needs to be done.”

The situation in Glen Allen isn’t unique. Schools across the country are grappling with similar bullying situations, and students and administrators are responding in a variety of ways. Researchers are also looking closer at the issues driving the problem, CultureFeed reports:

(T)he best anti-bullying program is a devotion to forming the moral lives of students in ways that allow them and their peers to flourish. As Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead advocates, “rather than focus on punishing the perpetrator and preventing contact between the ‘bully’ and the ‘victim,’ let’s focus on teaching positive social behaviors such as respect, compassion, and kindness.” We might also include courage among such behaviors, as the virtue that turns bystanders into what one expert terms upstanders—the people who intervene in something wrong to do what is right.

The Jubilee Centre provides lessons for students and teachers on kindness, respect, courage and other qualities that can set a school’s expectations and habits.

Lexington Crew builds moral character through service

Students at South Carolina’s Meadow Glen Middle School are learning the true meaning of good character through a “Crew” program designed to connect them with the community through meaningful service projects.

The effort has not only helped to rebuild the community after devastating floods in 2015, but also to develop an ethic of service among students that will undoubtedly follow them throughout life.

James Davison Hunter, an acclaimed sociologist and founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, writes in The Tragedy of Moral Education:

No one has ever believed in kindness or honesty without understanding them in the concrete circumstances of a moral culture embedded in a moral community . . . It is easy to affirm a general idea of kindness, but quite another to believe that other people are intrinsically worth being treated kindly, and that because of that belief, one has an obligation to actually treat them kindly. The first is a much more flexible and convenient morality than the second, and it is one that is easier to ignore when the cost of holding it rises.

The perspective rings true at Meadow Glen Middle School, which opened in 2012 with a focus on building a school culture that promotes positive relationships through a Crew program that’s played a major role in student success, both academically and personally.

Students in grades six through eight meet three to five times a week in small groups to build relationships, monitor academic progress, and focus on character development, but the program has developed into something well beyond those goals.

“Our initial version of Crew recognized service and leadership as an important part of building character,” the school’s Faculty Crew wrote in a blog for Education Week. “But it took time, practice, and ultimately a natural disaster for our students to understand what the motto of Crew—We Are Crew, not passengers—really means.”

The program began with students working together with hands-on team-building exercises, followed by discussions so “students got to know the strengths and vulnerabilities of other members of their crew.

“They learned to trust each other, to fail together, and to try again,” the Faculty Crew wrote.

“The projects we took on in the first years, jointly led by Crew leaders and students, taught us a lot about organizing people, gathering resources, and working with clear purpose and coordination. We also learned how to interview experts, form partnerships in the community, and to rehearse presentations designed to persuade decision makers.”

But it was tropical storm Joaquin in October 2015—an “all-hands-on-deck moment”—that transformed the school’s culture from “service projects to an ethic of service,” according to school officials.

Many Lexington families lost most of their belongings, roads were washed out, and folks poured into local shelters and food banks.

Meadow Glen students sprang into action.

“Over the next several weeks, students helped remove damaged items from homes, participated in donation drives, worked in food shelters, organized donated goods, ripped up damaged floors and carpets, helped families move into new homes, and assisted in church efforts to get needed supplies to those in need,” faculty wrote.

One of the 8th-grade Crews also initiated a local road race to raise funds for flood victims. The students designed the race with cooperation from school and community officials, sought sponsorships from local businesses, and collaborated with classmates to promote the event.

And the event was a success for students and those in need.

“The Crew that led the initiative truly became engaged in the process and in their leadership roles. Teachers noted that the process changed how they treated their academic coursework and their behavior in the classroom,” Education Week reports.

“I listened more and cared more about schoolwork, because teachers were also invested in supporting us with the race,” said Cade, a Meadow Glen 8th-grader.

The experience also prepared students to extend their reach beyond Lexington when Hurricane Harvey flooded Texas this school year. Crews coordinated with a local transportation company to send two pallets of supplies to flood victims in Texas, though the student-led “Pack the Pallet” campaign ultimately collected enough food and supplies to send 14 pallets to the Houston Food Bank, according to the news site.

Sixth-grader Adyson described the impact the Pack the Pallet campaign had on her and her classmates.

“Seeing that we made a difference makes me want to do more service,” she said. “Service helps me be a better person and citizen (because it) brings me back to reality (and) makes me a better student in the classroom.

“You do something nice and it puts you in a good place mentally for your classes,” she said. “And, I think I treat others better and am more aware of others and bringing others into the conversation.”

The kind of self-sacrificing kindness and generosity described by Hunter seem to be on full display at Meadow Glen, and establishing those habits early will play a critical role in helping students to become more spontaneous and personal in later years.

And while the Crew program is an excellent way to instill generosity in students, resources from the Jubilee Centre and others offer ways schools can start small to build a similar sense of purpose and good character.