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Coastal Voices: Character-building in schools

In her Feb. 15 Coastal Voices piece, “ Better solutions than clinic,” Mary Martinez calls for our schools to use curriculum “infused with character-building traits such as self-control, putting others first, self respect, respect for others, saying no, not taking the easy way and working hard to be happy in the long run, and not looking for immediate gratification.” 

We could not agree more with Martinez. With our curriculum approved for us at the state level, we rely on our own local efforts to bring character-building curriculum into the routines of our schools.

We have introduced quality character concepts into daily activities within our classrooms, and teachers are encouraged to reinforce these lessons throughout the day.  We use a mix of Character Counts, Project Wisdom, and Second Step in our elementary and middle schools, with awards assemblies focused not just on academic achievement but also on demonstrations of high quality character development among our students. 

At Del Norte High for the past two years students have learned a simple mantra they call The Warrior Way:  “Respect yourself, respect others, respect this place.”  In our alternative schools (Sunset, Castle Rock, McCarthy, Elk Creek, Bar-O, Community Day), we use Character-Based Literacy to focus each day on the importance of responsibility, positive change, justice, courage and integrity.

We appreciate immensely partner organizations that also contribute to this work through guest speaking events in our classrooms and classes offered in the community. Del Norte Child Care Council’s “Incredible Years” helps children and their parents develop common vocabulary for problem solving to create home and school lives that are positive, supportive, and productive. Children and parents learn to check their “internal thermometers” to stay in control of emotions and impulses.

The county’s “Friday Night Live” program places older teens with younger teens for mentoring to do well in school and in the community and to stay away from alcohol and drugs. “Strengthening Families,” a county and CAN program, helps families with children 10-14 to practice strategies they need to thrive.

As for the schools, should we do more? Some in our community want us to stick to reading, writing, and arithmetic and to stay away from values entirely. We do have serious time constraints. Students attend school 180 days a year for six hours each day, giving us 1,080 hours of school time per year. Teachers are expected to achieve rigorous “No Child Left Behind” outcomes in those 1,080 hours. 

By contrast, children spend 4,575 waking hours at home in a year. That’s where the bulk of living and learning happens.  Children are home — hopefully with caring, nurturing family members — 185 days a year. We recognize when children arrive at school rested, fed, supported and ready to learn.  We are haunted, though, by the children who do not have that kind of home life.

Sometimes we take heat for focusing too much on inadequately parented children.  Someone must help find adequate supports for children who are not in happy or healthy homes. Some go home to battle zones, caught between warring mothers and fathers. Others don’t know where they’ll sleep each night. Quite a few have parents who don’t know how to help them with life’s problems let alone with reading, writing and arithmetic. Others are busy battling addiction or depression or poverty.  It’s impossible for us to adopt a “sink or swim” attitude toward our students. 

When we put energy into partnerships like the Teen Clinic to support those children, some strong and capable parents wonder if schools are overstepping their bounds. Others send thank-you notes for stepping in to assist.  Half the community applauds our efforts and urges us to do more; the other half is dismayed.

I’ve written this here before:  We all share a common goal of helping all Del Norte’s children to thrive. In the end, the best efforts of all of us pulling together in the same direction, even if we are pulling with different “ropes,” will far surpass the best efforts of any of us pulling alone.

We will give new ideas a try, we’ll collect the data to show results, and we will keep what works and drop what doesn’t. (And let’s keep talking!)

Jan Moorehouse is superintendent of the Del Norte Unified School District.

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