Like many high school football players, Eddie Robinson and his Reseda High teammates engaged in trash talking and aggressive behavior on the field.
But the profanity, shoving and rudeness tapered off last season after coaches introduced character education, the latest trend among teachers and principals fed up with obnoxious behavior and bad attitudes.
Designed to teach trustworthiness, respect and responsibility, among other qualities, character education received a big boost last week when Los Angeles Unified's District C in the San Fernando Valley became one of the largest urban systems in the nation to use such a curriculum in its classrooms.
"We were more mature and better," Robinson, 18, said after the lessons, comparing his teammates' behavior to their opponents'. "If other guys still antagonize you, then you have to be the bigger man."
Dozens of athletic teams in the Los Angeles Unified School District began teaching character last year with positive results, coaches said. Their enthusiasm reflects a national trend as schools in at least 48 states adopt standards for teaching character to stem disciplinary problems and violence.
President Bush advocates tripling the nearly $9 million in federal funds that schools spend annually on character education.
Findings in a national survey on character education prompted District C Supt. Bob Collins to make the subject a priority this academic year, which began last week at year-round schools. With 70,000 students on 75 campuses, District C is one of 11 mini-districts within Los Angeles Unified.
"We're going to infuse it in everything we do in the district," Collins said. "I would like students on surveys in May to say they don't think cheating is a problem, that they feel safe on campus and that there has been a reduction in the use of profanity."
Survey Revealed Disturbing Attitudes
The survey that influenced him was taken last fall of 8,600 students. It found that 71% had cheated in the previous year, 35% had stolen something from a store and 68% had struck someone when angry. Yet 96% gave themselves high marks for possessing good character, according to the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, which conducted the survey and designed the curriculum District C will use.
The Josephson Institute's Character Counts! program is used by many Los Angeles Unified athletic programs and schools in Anaheim, Irvine, Manhattan Beach and the Antelope Valley. It is designed to teach children and teenagers such ideals as valuing others for who they are and not what they look like, techniques for controlling their tempers and methods to stop using bad language or violence.
"I get calls all the time from administrators at other schools about how well-behaved our kids are," said Pat Iaccino, principal at Highland High in Palmdale, which has 3,000 students. "Kids are respectful now and there's no fighting or profanity."
Highland uses Character Counts! but nationwide more than 150 independent centers, including several in California, peddle such materials and programs. Character Counts! is used by 5 million students in 5,000 schools across the country, said Michael Josephson, president of the institute.
Teachers and administrators attend three-day training sessions in which they learn how to design activities that can be integrated into existing curricula and how to respond to challenges and questions from students, parents and colleagues.
District C will spend about $200,000 for training and materials, Collins said.
"[Character education] will be integrated so well into the curriculum that it will be without superhuman effort," said Ed Krojansky, principal at Van Nuys Elementary.
Krojansky looked on last week as second-grade teacher Sybil Batiste kicked off the school year by blending respect and responsibility into the day's lesson. She read the class a short story in which the main character was humble and respectful. Then she had her students draw pictures of themselves working.
Principal Touts Accomplishments
Little reliable research exists about the effectiveness of character programs, but administrators who have used them for years vouch for them. At Emperor Elementary in San Gabriel, Principal Kathy Perini said eight years of using a program called Values in Action has "changed the culture of the school."
There is virtually no stealing or bullying on her campus, she said, and respect is demanded of students. Courteous sixth-graders volunteer to clean up the cafeteria and teachers fashion "integrity trees" to honor students' good deeds.
"With good character comes higher academic performance," Perini said. "We're the highest-performing school in the [Temple City Unified] district and we're not doing anything different curriculum-wise."
But others are not convinced character education makes a difference.
"It's a waste of time," said Glen Forsch, founder of the Assn. for Accountability and Equity in Education, a watchdog group based in Pacoima. "They should spend the money making kids successful in math, writing and basic education."