Getting in step with character
Devon Freeman learned well the lesson of the day about how to treat others.
"We respect them the way we want them to respect us, and stuff like that," he said.
Devon, a second-grader at Starside Elementary School, was one of more than 150 students who turned out for the school's annual Respect Walk on Tuesday. Promoting respect for one's body, the after-school walk kicked off Starside's character education program and several other fitness programs.
Throughout the year, students study what they call the six character pillars: respect, responsibility, citizenship, caring, trustworthiness and fairness. Actions in line with those qualities are encouraged with activities and rewards.
The rewards part was Devon's favorite. He listed a number of things he did that counted for credit, like walking the dog, helping out at home and participating in the respect walk.
After leading a gym full of students in warm-up activities, P.E. teacher Toni Cook reminded them to respect fellow students in the group, respect nature as they walked through it and respect the school building by picking up after snack time as they headed outside.
As students munched on granola bars after their walk -- twice around the soccer fields and the district administrative center -- school counselor Paula Henderson reminded some that taking seconds when there weren't enough snacks for everyone wasn't very respectful.
Henderson said Starside tried to pitch character like a heavily-advertised commercial product. Educators want children to see the words, know their meaning and apply them to behavior.
"Almost every activity we do at Starside goes back to our character education program," she said. "We are trying to sell the kids. Everywhere you look in our building, they see those words."
The posters, banners, activities and events seem to be working.
Tyler Easley, a fifth-grader, knew exactly why he and his fellow students were walking around the school grounds on Tuesday -- respecting yourself includes keeping your body in shape.
"It's about, like, if you care about yourself, you want to keep yourself healthy," he said. "It makes it more fun because you can do it with other kids."
Easley said he participated in Starside's running and fitness club, too.
He and the friends he was walking with -- fifth-graders Rick Clancy, Sergio Valenzuela and Hayden Chandler -- all said their parents applauded the character program activities and vouched for them with notes from home.
Gestures listed in the notes, they said, count for credit and are applied as links to a school-wide character chain.
Cook said respecting your body through physical fitness was more effective with parental support.
"We have a lot of families that are involved with it," she said. "If the kids see their parents exercising then they're more likely to exercise and lead a healthy lifestyle as well."
Henderson said that idea applied to all of the character pillars.
"The whole philosophy is that it takes a whole village," she said. "We just say again what they hear at home."
Back home, parents and grandparents say they can tell their children are picking up a few of those pillars.
Joyce Stewart, who was waiting to pick up two grandchildren after Tuesday's walk, said she thought teaching character in school was a good idea.
"It's great," she said. "The kids take it seriously, too. My granddaughter has talked about it at home, so I know it made some kind of impression on her."
Stewart said character education in her school days was much less in-depth.
"We had citizenship awards, but we didn't really know how we got them," she said.
De Soto USD 232's character education program has been adopted for use in all its schools, although each participates in different ways and to varying degrees. Nods to caring, respect, fairness and more can be found all over the district, like on colorful light-pole banners edging the parking lots of all De Soto schools.
Lexington Trails Middle School incorporates character education into its program, too, but to a lesser degree than most elementary schools, said Principal Mark Schmidt.
Schmidt said the school highlighted each month's trait in morning announcements and used the word for oversized chain link fence decoration, made by pressing colored cups through the links.
Occasional activities, volunteer days and counselor talks also can be tied-in with character themes he said.
At De Soto High School, character is part of the the freshman orientation class, said Principal David Morford. It's also incorporated into many of the school's community service projects.
De Soto adopted Character Counts from a program created by a national ethics center, said Randy Doerksen, Prairie Ridge Elementary School principal. Schools glean ideas from the center's Web site and newsletters, then tailor programs to meet their specific needs.
Doerksen said the program was well-received by parents, although some worried at first that character education would take instructional time away from academics.
"I think that that is an initial response that people have a tendency to have, because they're thinking of it as a program, or they're thinking of it as a curriculum at your school," Doerksen said. "It's more about who we are and what we do on a day-to-day basis than about teaching a particular character trait. It's not something that we tack onto the school day."
Instead of teaching character as a specialized course, Doerksen said it's blended into activities, visuals and all interactions during the day.