<< The Body Politic

Counting on character

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Last week, the AEI Program on American Citizenship published a case study by Daniel Lautzenheiser and Andrew P. Kelly that looked at the Democracy Prep Public Schools network in New York City. Today, we’d like to highlight the second study in the series that explores how top-performing charter schools have incorporated civic learning in their school curriculum and culture: “Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education.”

In the study, Joanne Jacobs, a freelance education writer and K-12 education blogger at JoanneJacobs.com, heads to National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter school network that runs 74 schools in Michigan and eight other states. It is the nation’s second largest charter network. What sets the network apart, though, is its emphasis on character education. The network’s “moral focus” curriculum draws on the Greek cardinal virtues—wisdom, self-control, courage, and justice—to provide a values-centered education for its students. And although US history and civics are “not wrapped in the flag,” NHA schools emphasize the uniqueness of America and seek to remind parents and students that personal virtue should be a step to civic virtue—not just a route to college and prosperity.

Take a look at the first part of the study, and read the whole thing here:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” chant the students of Ridge Park Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “And to the Republic for which it stands . . .”

In the back of the room, a dozen parents stand with their hands over their hearts. Some are US citizens by birth, others by naturalization, and some by aspiration. Their children recite: “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

A National Heritage Academies (NHA) charter school, Ridge Park starts every day with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the school creed: “I am a Ridge Park scholar. I strive to achieve academic excellence. I exemplify high moral character. I work diligently to prepare for the future . . .”

Character education is ubiquitous and relentless at NHA schools. Each month is assigned a “moral focus” or virtue, which teachers are supposed to weave into their lessons and students write about from kindergarten through eighth grade. Signs in classrooms and hallways honor examples of virtue.

Like other charter schools, NHA promises parents to teach a rigorous curriculum that will prepare their children for success in college. It also promises a moral education imbued with traditional values such as love of country and family. Good character is not just a private asset, NHA leaders believe. It leads to good citizenship.

At a weekly (or daily, in some NHA schools) moral focus assembly, students are honored for their character as well as their academic accomplishments. In mid-September, wisdom is the assembly’s theme. Parents are encouraged to attend assemblies and to visit the school whenever they please. At Ridge Park, several dozen parents, some with preschoolers in tow, have come, knowing that medallions will be awarded for top performance in math.

A fourth-grade teacher reads his students’ reflections about wisdom. “It is wise to eat carrots, exercise, care for friends, do homework, and go to the moon,” his students have written. “It is not wise to talk to strangers, play in class, gossip, steal, bully, or pet strange dogs.”

“Wisdom is to be careful to do what is right,” the teacher concludes.

Then, it is time for Principal John Brillhart to call the math whizzes up to the front of the gym. Parents leap off the bleachers to photograph their children.

Brillhart concludes the assembly with what he calls the magic two words: “Stop bullying.” After a recent assembly on standing up to bullies, Ridge Park parents came in with an antibullying pledge, which Brillhart asked students to adapt. He reads the students’ version of the pledge:

I won’t watch someone being bullied.
I’m a do-something person.
I can be a leader.
In my world, there are no bullies allowed.

Students troop out of the gym to start their day.

Click here to continue reading “Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education.”