I have been sitting in on a slowly developing coalition for character in my county. Our organization, AEC-I Decide had tried last year to interest the county next to ours in a character building program for the simple reason that it is one of the poorest counties in New York and character programs have been proven to change the status quo. Unfortunately, we got virtually no response from the local schools which were originally supposed to be our jumping off point.  The schools are ideal as they have our young people for a great part of the day and of course their mission is education.

What we are hearing is that the schools are overwhelmed with all the government requirements (testing, “No Child Left Behind” etc.), have insufficient budgets and that the schools actually don’t have too many problems within the school itself. However, the administrations are concerned. Most of the problems arise in the community and parents are unable or unavailable to control the situation.

This past September, we held a Health and Wellness Fair in Edmeston at the Village of the Vine Health and Wellness Center and invited Dr. John O’Connell D.Ed to speak. Dr. O’Connell is a retired Superintendant of schools from Alleghany County, who now lives in Maine. This was the third time that we had invited him to our area to introduce the character development program from the Center for the 4th and 5th R’s (Respect and Responsibility) at SUNY Cortland which was developed by Dr. Tom Lickona. He had used it to great success in his school district. Despite the fact that his was a low performing district with high poverty rates, the institution of monthly character goals quickly and positively affected the young people in the schools. Test scores rose nearly 30% and discipline problems decreased by about the same rate within the first year and continued yearly with excellent results. Dr. O’Connell is using his retirement time to “spread the word” and hopefully our county will be the beneficiaries of his largesse.

One major difference in the approach he had at the Health Fair from our previous pitches to school districts, was to use the idea of using the “village” to help our children. In the case of his school district, this approach had developed over the course of his implementation of the program. That is to say, what happened was that when there was an “incident”, in school or out, parents were immediately contacted and follow ups were made by organizations like the sheriff’s department.

All of us want the best for our children and good character is an excellent foundation, plus it has the added advantage of helping our kids to have a safe environment in school which in turn gives them the peace of mind which lets them concentrate and do well. And good character programs encourage good social interaction, which is a lifetime skill, essential to all areas of life. An important thing to remember thought, is that although it is wonderful to have the schools work on teaching kids character, studies have found that it is the parents that continue to be the most influential people in a child's life. A lot of parents don't know that and don't have confidence in themselves, but it is the simple daily things we do, the good examples we are to our children, that will play the biggest part in our children's future lives and success. A little effort now will have huge payoffs in the future, for ourselves, our children and our society.