South Tahoe school selected for charter education program
Anyone who has walked through the front door at Al Tahoe Elementary School recently has seen the apples.
Scores of them adorn the wall in the main hall for all to see – and the numbers are growing.
Each “good apple” has its own special message – for example, “John Moss always tells the truth,” “Chelsey Roqueza picks up litter without being asked” or “Enrique Caro always says please and thank-you.”
If the display sounds like a good behavior tactic right out of the 1950s, you’re right – ‘ol fashioned values have arrived at Al Tahoe Elementary in a brand new shiny package.
“Things are different now – Ozzie and Harriet don’t live here anymore,” said Principal Jim Watson. “We’re now finally coming back to the notion that it’s important to communicate our core values to students. They haven’t been highlighted in recent years.”
The South Tahoe elementary school is one of five in the state chosen for the U.S. Department of Education’s four-year Character Education Pilot Project, bringing with it roughly $10,000 a year for staff travel and training. Project coordinators say Al Tahoe was singled out for its demographics, effective leadership and “strong interest in improving education and children’s lives.”
The goals of the project – now in the second year of implementation – are to encourage six specific elements of character in the student body: caring, civic virtue, justice and fairness, respect, responsibility and trustworthiness.
“It’s not that these values haven’t been here all along,” said Watson. “It’s just time to shine a light on them – to bring them back to the forefront so we can begin labeling them and discussing them.”
Identifying how those traits translate into everyday actions is a key component, said teacher and Character Ed site coordinator Rhonda Van Deusen. “For example, what does ‘respect’ mean to a second grader? It could mean cutting back on name-calling or being more courteous in the lunch line,” she said. “We try to describe the behavior plainly – some students have done skits that reflect the traits we want to encourage.”
According to Vicki Alterwitz, the Sacramento County Office of Education’s Character Education coaching coordinator, a renewed interest in the teaching of values in schools originated five years ago in Washington, D.C., when public officials began to discuss the disturbing rise in juvenile crime.
“Problems in schools and a growing lack of parental guidance nationwide are hot topics at the federal level now. I think they view grant money for Character Education as a preventive strategy,” said Alterwitz. “They finally said, ‘It’s time to start talking about how we want kids to behave instead of just hoping they’ll get it.'”
“Model it yourself if you expect it from kids,” he said. “In fact, we’re looking at all school relationships – student to student, student to teacher and teacher to teacher.”
Every trimester, two positive traits from the “Six Pillars of Character” are emphasized. These traits then become themes that Watson hopes will eventually be woven into the school culture – in the classrooms and halls, in the lunch room and on the playground.
For example, older students are now helping younger students learn to read and many are reading new books on caring and other traits. Even math has been used as a way to show children how to share.
“Parents need to realize that this training isn’t taking anything away from academics – it’s an integral part of it,” said Van Deusen. “And the more positive an environment is, the more conducive it is to learning.”
But the lessons don’t stop at recess – creating a “peaceful playground” is also part of the package.
“Kids don’t play the old neighborhood games we used to,” said Van Deusen. “Many never really learned how to play fairly – like how to take turns or even what the rules are.”
But the nagging question remains: Do schools have a right to teach a specific set of values?
“Absolutely,” said Watson. “These are core values – things most would agree are needed for the well-being of a democratic society. This is not to say that many families aren’t doing their jobs, but in some cases schools have become the chief socializing agent.”
Values that may be open to different cultural, religious or socioeconomic interpretations are not touched on in the Character Education model, said Watson. For that reason, even some widely accepted ideals – like “good health,” “long life” or “athletic ability” are not included.
“The traits we focus on are all pretty universal,” said Watson. “Those that are needed for us all to live humane lives.”
Although Watson and Van Deusen said the program is too new to discuss results, both say it certainly hasn’t done any harm.
“It’s not really even a program – it’s more of an awareness. At the end, we won’t really have a product to show, just a path we traveled,” said Watson. “But it’s common sense. This is a reasonable way for people to treat each other. We’ll make a lot more progress if we all learn to treat each other well.”
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