Want to teach fifth-graders a lesson? Let them play Santa Claus.
First-graders at Sawgrass Lake Elementary sent letters to Santa last Christmas. Fifth-graders, playing Santa, wrote back.
The lesson: empathy. Thoughtfulness. Maybe how nice it feels to be nice to somebody else.
Welcome to the warm-and-fuzzy world of character education. The Florida Legislature mandated it in 1999 for elementary schools. In 2002, lawmakers decided it should be taught in middle and high schools, too.
Pinellas schools began with an approach built around four words: honesty, respect, responsibility and motivation. Since then, many have gone above and beyond that.
Guidance counselors now teach conflict resolution. Newsletters go home in backpacks with ideas for dinnertime discussions on ethical dilemmas. Breezeways sport signposts like "Responsibility Street" and "Cooperation Avenue."
Character education is "not a layer on top of, it's integrated into," said Seminole Elementary principal Bonnie Cangelosi. "It becomes your way of talk, your way of work."
Earlier this year, both Sawgrass Lake and Seminole Elementary were selected as State Schools of Character. Two years ago, Cross Bayou Elementary was one of only 10 schools in the country to win a similar honor nationally.
And as part of a $1-million federal grant from a group called Partnership in Education, teachers at Sawgrass and Seminole have begun mentoring their peers at several other schools, including Oakhurst and McMullen-Booth elementaries.
Go to any of those places, supporters say, and you can see and hear the difference: Kids opening doors for other kids. Kids who say "excuse me." And, at the same time, not as many kids tussling in P.E. or sassing their teachers.
"I just notice more calmness," said Amanda Cooper, the PTA president at Sawgrass Lake.
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True believers say character education is about more than manners.
"It just makes sense that if there's not inner turmoil in the classroom, kids are able to do a better job and concentrate on their schoolwork," said Claudia Hunter, a retired Pinellas district official who now coordinates the Florida schools of character program for the Maitland-based Golden Rule Foundation.
While even the staunchest supporters concede there isn't much hard evidence to back claims that character education and academics are linked, it's more than a leap of faith, they say, to think that a kid who shakes your hand, looks you in the eye and says "pleased to meet you" without mumbling is probably going places academically.
There's also anecdotal evidence to back the claim. Before Cross Bayou Elementary revamped its character education efforts, only 49 percent of its students were reading at grade level, said principal Marcia Stone. Children were racking up as many as 20 referrals a day for defiance.
Fast forward a few years, and 76 percent are at grade level or above. Referrals have dropped to fewer than five a week. Stone credits the reversal to nothing less than a change in the school's culture.
"It used to be that we couldn't find substitutes who wanted to come back here," Stone said. "Now we marvel at the tone of the school. You don't hear anyone yelling. You don't hear loud voices."
Meanwhile, at Sawgrass Lake, where 62 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, officials say tardies and referrals dropped dramatically after character education shifted into high gear a year ago.
The school's vision includes uniforms, "character assemblies," and mentoring for struggling students. Kids who exhibit good citizenship win "dog tag" awards. Assistant principal Godfrey Watson videotapes examples of model behavior for replay during Monday morning announcements — everything from students persevering on class projects to those fifth-graders reading their Santa letters.
"You can see that these kids treasure feeling special," said Watson, who sports a perpetual smile and a remnant Jamaican accent. "When they feel important, you know what? They act important."
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Despite pockets of hope, surveys indicate that students nationwide have never been ruder and that bullying is rampant. Locally, a 2006 survey by the Juvenile Welfare Board found that large numbers of adolescents were being bullied in Pinellas public schools.
The agency estimated that more than 14,700 students had been hit, kicked, punched or shoved in school. An estimated 2,200 students did not go to school because they felt unsafe.
All the more reason for schools to redouble their efforts, says Val Galena, project manger for Pinellas' character education grant. And all the more reason, she adds, for expanding the training program embraced by Cross Bayou and the other elementary schools to middle and high schools.
"Some of them will say, 'But we don't have time, we have too much on our plate,' " she said. "In reality, character education is the plate."
Galena and others realize there are critics with a different question: Is it a school's place to teach character? Sometimes, it has to be, supporters say.
"Not all kids go to Boy Scouts," said Hunter, the former Pinellas official. "Not all kids go to church. But all kids have to go to school. If schools are not teaching these things, unfortunately, the kids may not be getting the skills they need to succeed in life."
Even if children are learning those lessons elsewhere, it doesn't hurt for schools to reinforce them, said Cooper, the PTA president.
A few days ago, she and her second-grade son, Cameron, biked home from school together and saw broken glass in the driveway from a beer bottle. As Cooper put her bike away, Cameron headed for the broom and dust pan. Without being asked.
Cooper was shocked and happy. And she gave Sawgrass Lake half the credit.