Youth Today: Creating Character-Rich Communities

By Karen Pittman, December 2003

I'll admit it: I've got mixed feelings about character education classes — emphasis on "classes." My gut instinct, first as a parent, then as a youth worker, is that these kinds of lessons are best learned when they're embedded in other learning experiences and reinforced in life, particularly when the recipients are teens.

I was not surprised, then, when I scanned a recent Washington Post article recounting the less than enthusiastic reactions of affluent Virginia high school students to a mandatory character education class filled with videos, skits and inspirational speakers. The kids cheered when a fire alarm interrupted the class.

I gave the article a second look, however, when I reviewed my full pile of clippings for the week and juxtaposed it with three other stories. The first reported on a pair of high school coaches in Missouri who took their girls' and boys' cross-country teams to a fictitious meet in California, even making up results that were reported in the town paper. (A parent then challenged the results.)

The coaches were fired. It was not clear whether the students were asked to lie about the meet.

The second story reported on a teen who assaulted a four-year-old in a fast food restaurant after the little boy accidentally got ice cream on her sleeve. The girl was 18 years old and almost nine months pregnant. She chased the child across the restaurant, pinned him in a headlock and smeared hot fries in his face, all the while screaming obscenities.

The young woman was sentenced to 18 months in jail, with all but four days suspended contingent upon her taking anger management and parenting classes.

The last story featured a teen football star who insisted his record-breaking pass not be recognized in Illinois record books after he discovered that his coach and the opposing team had agreed on a plan to make it possible. He has (deservedly) been celebrated by the media since that time. But should it have ever gotten to the point where he had to serve as role model for the adults?

These may be extreme examples, but they make it difficult to shrug off the efforts of schools to teach values. There may be a need for a second standards movement in education in these post-Enron, anything-goes times. It may be time to talk openly about what it takes to build character.

Do a Google search for "character education" and you'll find the Character Education Partnership, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan, nonsectarian coalition of schools and nonprofits that offers 11 principles of effective character education. The coalition promotes concepts such as core ethical values, family and community partnerships, and caring school communities.

Research suggests that character education does pay off for elementary and middle school youth, reducing risky and anti-social behaviors by as much as 50 percent. Evaluators acknowledge, however, that the effects of traditional practices are more powerful for younger students than for high schoolers. Many existing programs are not realistic for teenagers and don't offer enough opportunities for learning through experience.

While traditional character education classes may not be the answer in high school, something is clearly needed.

Maybe the answer is not character education classes, but character-rich communities, both in school and out. Communities like these are being created through many small and alternative schools across the country, including the one created by Roca, a ground-breaking grassroots youth-serving agency in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

Roca's philosophy is heavily influenced by the traditional practices of Native Americans, promoted by Larry Brendtro of Reclaiming Youth as a proactive way of engaging disenfranchised youth. Their efforts center on a trajectory of leadership development work that includes building "transformational relationships" — a long-term bond between youth and adults that encourages belonging and generosity.

Roca is one of the finest examples of values in action that I have ever seen. Its work requires everyone — staff, volunteers, family members and young people — to take a critical look at whether their actions and those of others are in line with the Roca communities' values. Increasingly, Roca's values are spreading beyond its doors. Roca youths can be seen breaking up fights on street corners or sitting in "peacemaking circles" — a time-honored communication technique — with school administrators

In 2001, Roca received one of the coveted institution building awards from the E.M. Clark Foundation. It celebrates its 15th anniversary this year as it works to find ways to share the lessons it has learned with others. We need more such efforts.


Read More:
Kalita, S.M. (2003, October 22). "At School, the Issue Is Character: State Mandate Collides with Older Students' Lack of Interest." Washington Post, p. B8.

Badger, E. (2003, October 15). "Have You Heard...: A Bad Case of California Dreamin.'" Washington Post, p. D2.

Schulte, B. (2003, October 15). "Woman Gets Jail in Assault on Boy, 4: Hot French Fries Smashed in Face." Washington Post, p. B1.

Gehring, J. (2003, November 19). "A Quarterback Gets His Wish to Stay Out of Record Books." Education Week on the Web. Retrieved November 25, 2003 from

Character Education Partnership Web Site. Retrieved December 1, 2003, from

Roca, Inc., Web Site. Retrieved December 1, 2003, from

Roca: Supporting Young People to Thrive and Lead Change. Hart, L.M., & Mahfuz, J.J. (2002, draft). Retrieved December 1, 2003, from and (16-page PDF).

A "National Character Counts Week" was proclaimed during October 2003 by President George W. Bush. Proclamation retrieved December 1, 2003, from

The Department of Education announced the establishment of a Technical Center for Character Education and Civic Engagement.
U.S. Department of Education. (2003, October 16). "Character Education Critical to Education System, Paige Says." Press release. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved December 1, 2003 from

Pittman, K. (2003, December). "Creating Character-Rich Communities." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in
Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
December 15, 2003
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