- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2001

The buildings that comprise Merritt Academy's Fairfax, Va., campus, with their covered porches, brickless facades and gently steeped roofs, look more like homes than school property.

It's a fitting metaphor: Merritt Academy, which teaches preschool through eighth grade, is a private Virginia school devoted since its 1961 inception to character education, a topic that many in the cultural debate contend should be kept out of school and taught at home.

The issue is a live one: Should moral values such as honor, integrity and selflessness be imparted by parents alone, or do parents need help from the schools in shaping children who can become solid citizens as well as masters of the three Rs?

Merritt Academy leaves no doubt as to where it stands. Marcia Wiggins, director of education, says many of those who look askance at character education in school simply haven't done their homework. Evidence is mounting, she says, that supports her school's commitment to values education.

"The golden rule is part of 23 different cultures worldwide," Ms. Wiggins says of the familiar motto: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Character schooling used to be a routine component of the average school day, particularly in public school settings, Ms. Wiggins says. That philosophy began to change in the late 1960s, Ms. Wiggins says, when some educators questioned whose values were being taught to the students.

"We stepped back from teaching right from wrong," she says.

Suddenly, she says, students were told, "'You must do what makes you happy,'" she says, ignoring classic teaching of doing for others as its own reward. "To me, it scared teachers into stepping way back."

• • •

Two years ago, the D.C.-based Character Education Partnership, a nonprofit coalition of educational groups seeking to have values taught in schools, tabbed Merritt as one of 10 schools nationwide to receive its National School of Character honor.

A key component of Merritt's approach is regular student visits to the adjacent Sunrise Assisted Living, a seniors' residential campus. Students get to know their senior neighbors through group activities while lending their time to others. Some public schools require students to put in a certain number of volunteer hours. At Merritt, the senior service is as mandatory as spelling tests and homework.

"Without being given opportunities to practice what they're taught, it might not become intrinsic in their lives," she says.

Lisa A. Turissini, head of the Fairfax school, says character education has "become the culture here."

Merritt students gather each morning for the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer, the latter moment also a time for other prayers or reflection. The school's hallways are festooned with bulletin boards bearing slogans and designs that reinforce the theme of concern for others.

The message is in your face and consistent.

"There is no gray. If children curse on the playground, they're sent to the office," Mrs. Turissini says.

Part of the issue's difficulty is the differing perceptions of what "character education" is and should be.

Kent Willis, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Virginia office in Richmond, says the ACLU of Virginia does not oppose character education.

"Where character education becomes a problem is when it becomes entangled with religion," says Mr. Willis, who adds that some legislators blur the debate by sneaking religious guidelines into their character education bills.

"For schools to teach children not to lie, cheat or steal is absolutely appropriate," he says. "But they cannot teach it as religious dogma."

On the other side, Andrea Grenadier, director of communications with the D.C.-based Character Education Partnership, says parents' first reaction often is "defensive" when the subject arises.

"'That's my job,'" Ms. Grenadier says they often say. But Ms. Grenadier sees character education as being a partner in the child-raising process, not a threat or replacement.

She says her group's raison d'etre is to support "the moral, ethical and emotional development of children." The nonprofit coalition formed in 1993.

"If teachers spend more time disciplining in class, then that's more time for teaching," she says.

Not all schools apply character educational lessons equally.

"They think they're doing character education if they stick a word up on the wall like 'respect,'" Ms. Grenadier says of some teachers. "There's a perception that all character education is created equal."

Her organization points to recent data that bespeak just what kind of effect values can have on classroom behavior.

Over a 16-year period, three experimental studies of character-based models designed by the Developmental Studies Center — an Oakland, Calif.-based group that creates programs to foster children's intellectual, social and ethical development and has placed them into 165 schools — show that children in schools using its Child Development Project regimen demonstrated a greater sense of their schools as communities, a greater ability to resolve conflict, and less tendency to use alcohol and marijuana than students in matched comparison schools.

The studies also show, however, that effects on academic achievement were mixed, with some CDP schools showing considerable improvement over control schools in reading and math and others few differences. In one study, sixth-grade students in three CDP schools scored higher on CDP reading comprehension tests than counterparts in the control schools, but the advantages disappeared in a middle school follow-up study.

Studies aren't easy to accumulate, Ms. Grenadier says, since "it takes a while for character education to take root."

Ms. Grenadier's group reports that 11 states, including Virginia, currently mandate character education lessons. But, she cautions, local follow-through can differ.

"It can be however school districts decide they want to do it," she says.

Ms. Grenadier says parents should be wary of any school offering "words of the week," or other quick-fix solutions that might indicate shallow attempts to address the complex issue.

The battle to have children use courtesy titles may seem like a character education issue, but "you just can't make the kid do that," Ms. Grenadier says. "You have to teach them what it's all about."

• • •

Paul D. Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, who says his group has no official stance on character education, sees it as the public schools' "primary mission" to teach public virtue.

"Why are we stepping back from that?" Mr. Houston asks. "I think public schools should be doing more than they have been."

The Arlington-based AASA, founded in 1865, is the professional organization for more than 14,000 educational leaders across America and in many other countries.

"Character education is best taught when embedded in the life of the school," he says. "It can be encouraged at the state level but it's up to the local communities to go about it."

"Public schools abandoned, to a certain level, the character education because of fear of separation of church and state," he says.

"Most religions have the same basic virtues," he says.

The furor over character education, as he sees it, has an ideological but not a partisan basis. Liberals might see any values taught as bordering on religious instruction. Conservatives feel their values are those that must be taught, he says.

"You get clobbered from both sides," he says.

Merritt Academy teacher Patty Smith, a fourth grade instructor, taught at a Charles County, Md., public school before moving to the private Fairfax school.

"At public school, respect wasn't even talked about," Mrs. Smith says. "The kids didn't get what respect was."

She says her lessons incorporate character in various ways, such as exploring in reading assignments the values Harriet Tubman practiced as a part of the Underground Railroad.

Merritt teachers downloaded President George W. Bush's inaugural address. They had students circle the value words in it, then discussed them. Do politicians truly adhere to such statutes or is it lip service, they asked their young charges.

Mrs. Turissini says those who favor character education, particularly its return to public school curriculums, have hope.

"There are good success stories in public schools. You need to have everybody on the same page," she says. "Without the continuity, you'll lose that."

"Everyone on your staff needs to be seen as a role model," she adds.

To Mrs. Turissini, interest appears on the rise.

"We've had calls from other schools. Give us a binder and we'll implement it," Mrs. Turissini says.

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