School life changed for 13-year-old Malik Wynter after he began attending Ss. Peter and Paul School in Auburn, a Catholic school affiliated with the Diocese of Rochester.
"I have been going to this school for one and a half years, and before I came to this school, I went to public schools," said Malik, who completed eighth grade at the K-8 school in June. When he went to public school, "basically kids came to school, picked on you, go home and repeat. After I came to this school, my grades rose really high, and I’ve been really nice to people."
At Ss. Peter and Paul, Malik said he saw a difference in how people treated him, and in how he treated others.
"Before I would just — I would lie a lot, but now if I’m going somewhere, I tell my brother where I’m going, I leave a number and I tell him exactly when I’ll be back," he said.
A variety of research has confirmed Malik’s finding that academic success and high standards of character are linked, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Character Education and Civic Engagement Technical Assistance Center and the national Character Education Partnership.
Character education — teaching students how to develop positive, lived values called virtues — has been a key component of both public and private schools for centuries, according to Tom Lickona, a professor of education at State University of New York College at Cortland who also serves as director of the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) and codirector of the national Smart and Good Schools Initiative.
Yet Lickona said three factors in contemporary culture make character education more important today: the breakdown of traditional, two-parent families; mass media that often contradicts traditional family and Christian values; and a trend among young people of declining participation in religious faith.
These days, it is countercultural to be a person of character, he observed.
"A lot of families don’t have that countercultural mind-set," said Lickona, a member of St. Mary Catholic Church in Cortland in the Syracuse Diocese and chairman of Cortland’s Interparish Culture of Life Committee.
Lickona explained that the notion of instilling virtue through character education underwent a dramatic shift in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, some public-school educators developed a reluctance to distinguish between morally neutral desires and those that are morally positive or negative, he said.
"They treated all as a personal choice," Lickona said.
After this shift took place, teachers began to report that they lacked the ability to teach their students how to distinguish between right and wrong, he said. One teacher, for example, told Lickona that she struggled to frame an argument that would convince one of her students that shoplifting was wrong.
Character education experienced a rebirth in public schools during the late 1980s and the 1990s in response to a dramatic rise in such problems as alcohol and drug abuse, sexual activity, violence and bullying among children and teens, Lickona said. This renaissance in character education also was advanced by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which provided grants for schools to begin character-education programs.
Today’s public-school character-education programs assert that certain values are right or virtuous, and help students to live out virtues in their lives, Lickona said. While most Catholic schools never stopped teaching that certain values were morally right or wrong, he said today’s Catholic schools also are trying to counteract negative cultural and social pressures.
"If you are going to be a good person, a person of character, these days you are really swimming against a really polluted tide," Lickona said. "You need all the strength you can get."
Catholic students are literally on the same page when it comes to learning about character, said Sister of St. Joseph Carol Cimino, a Rochester native who codirects the Catholic School Leadership Institute at Manhattan College.
"In a Catholic school, I can go back to the words of Jesus," Sister Cimino said. "I can ask students what’s the basis for this characteristic."
The Biblical basis for developing good character is located, among other places, in Matthew 5:48 — part of the Sermon on the Mount — when Jesus commanded us to be perfect, just as our Heavenly Father is perfect, Lickona noted.
"We are called to become Godlike in our lives — to strive for God’s character, not our own," he said.
Character education is a way of life for the Diocese of Rochester’s Catholic schools, said Anne Willkens Leach, diocesan superintendent of schools.
"It’s infused into everything we do," Willkens Leach said.
Successful schools incorporate character growth into every aspect of the school day, from the bus ride to school to interactions in classrooms, the gym, the cafeteria and playground. Comprehensive character-education programs can help build a positive peer culture, which prevents put downs, bullying, exclusion and cliques, Lickona said.
He explained that schools that succeed in character education focus both on developing students’ moral character by holding them to high ethical standards, and also on enhancing students’ "performance character," the intrinsic desire to do good work and have a strong work ethic.
"It’s not a question of whether to do (character education), it’s a question of how to do it well," he said.
At Ss. Peter and Paul in Auburn, everything from planting flowers on campus, to collecting money from brownie sales, to greeting visitors, to singing enthusiastically at Mass has been linked to the school’s character-education program, according to third-grade teacher Lorraine Gera, who retired from the school at the end of June.
Evelyn Kirst, director of the religious and independent schools leadership program at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, said Catholic schools automatically include values education in new curricula that they develop. One local example was the development of a diocesan curriculum on technology in the early 1990s, she said.
"One of the major components was ethics in technology," said Kirst, former diocesan assistant superintendent for curriculum and testing from 1985-94 and principal of Mercy High School from 1994-2004. "We would talk about plagiarism and cheating and your own work. That’s something that was automatically a part of the curriculum."
In some schools, educators give character education special emphasis. During the coming fall, for example, Irondequoit’s Christ the King School will debut a new character-education program that includes anti-bullying information and peer mediation, thanks to a $2,467 grant from the John F. Wegman Fund of the Rochester-Area Community Foundation, said school advocate and licensed school counselor Marguerite Opett.
The grant will pay for a workshop by representatives of the Center for Dispute Settlement and for a presentation to parents on the topic of cyberbullying. It also will provide materials for each classroom on conflict resolution and solving problems peacefully.
Opett said the character-education program is based on the success of the schools’ prayer partners program, in which older students develop mentoring-style relationships with younger students. Prayer partners met throughout the year to pray together at Masses and work collaboratively on such activities as reading and art.
As an extension of the relationship-building that has already taken place, Opett said the new program’s peer-mediation component will enlist the help of fifth- and sixth-grade students to work with first-, second- and third-graders to resolve misunderstandings on the playground or disputes on the bus or in the hallways, gym and cafeteria.
As they teach their younger counterparts, peer mediators also will be learning strategies to handle conflicts: helping other people, empathy, active listening and verbalizing feelings, Opett said.
"They are learning skills they can take with them to middle school," she said.