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Schools Add Teaching of Personal Responsibility to Curriculum

December 25, 1988|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

La Canada Flintridge teacher Brent Noyes was more than appalled by what happened to Marcy Conrad in 1981. He was alarmed into action.

A 14-year-old from Milpitas in Northern California, Conrad was raped and killed by her boyfriend. But what most horrified Noyes and the rest of the nation was that carloads of students from Milpitas High School drove out to see the slain girl's body as it lay in the hills above their school. Not one of them reported the crime to authorities.

"I was so enraged by the Milpitas incident that I went to the school district and said, 'What are we going to do to keep that from happening?' " Noyes recalled.

What the district did was start teaching social values, or what is commonly called character education. Increasingly popular nationwide, such courses reflect the conviction that personal responsibility should be taught in the schools, whether or not it is taught in students' homes.

Must Accept Consequences

According to Noyes, a major purpose of Glendale's program, developed by the Thomas Jefferson Research Center in Pasadena, is to teach students that they must accept the consequences of what they do.

The Pasadena Unified School District also has a character-education curriculum, developed by teacher Maurice Morse. Neither program advocates religious beliefs. Both concentrate on widely held values such as honesty and self-control.

Noyes, who teaches a combined fifth and sixth grade at Lincoln Elementary School, tries to teach character-building lessons on a daily basis, not just on days when recess turns raucous.

"If there is a problem and we bring out the character education, then it's perceived as a punishment, not a reward," Noyes said.

During a recent lesson, Noyes wrote the word "star" on the chalkboard. "We want you to shine," said Noyes, who frequently urges his students to be stars, a word that connotes brilliance, success and other positive attributes.

Four Steps

STAR is also the acronym used throughout the Glendale schools to remind students of the four steps they are expected to take when confronted with a conflict or a problem. S--Stop, take a breath and count to 10. T--Think about your options and consider what the consequences of each possible action will be. A--Act, knowing that you are going to accept responsibility for what you do. R--Review your actions; accept and review their consequences.

During the lesson, Noyes asked the class to analyze a non-stellar performance by two fellow students: a fight that had broken out on the playground earlier in the day. He asked them to describe what had happened without giving names. "What are the consequences of fighting at this school?" he queried.

All the students knew what they could expect if they struck one of their peers: a trip to the principal's office, an embarrassing call home, suspension. A few classroom wags suggested other possible sanctions: "execution," "burning at the stake," "a boring lecture from the teacher."

Building Self-Image

In addition to teaching students what is expected of them, the program attempts to boost their self-image. Noyes noted that young egos are fragile and can be damaged by peers, thoughtless family members, even sarcastic teachers. He said the program seems to have helped several youngsters who were disruptive earlier in the school year. As they began to behave more appropriately, others started to treat them more positively and they seemed to feel happier with themselves.

Noyes said character-building programs are particularly important for students like his who are about to face the increased responsibilities of junior high. The teacher said he has never received a complaint about the curriculum, which is funded, in part, by donations from dozens of local organizations and private benefactors.

The Jefferson Center in Pasadena provides the materials, including the STAR program, and trains teachers for Glendale Unified's character course. According to spokesman Patrick McCarthy, the center is a nonprofit organization not affiliated with any church or political group, dedicated to the teaching of values in the schools. The center's programs cost between $500 and $4,000 per school. In the past, McCarthy said, the center has sometimes been able to help schools find funding for character programs.

Programs Used Locally

Locally, Long Beach Unified School District, Garvey School District and El Segundo Unified School District use center programs in some or all their schools.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District developed its own character-education program, which is taught in the district's middle schools. Los Angeles Unified School District is also reviewing various character-education programs for possible implementation, a district official said.

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