Another Columbine school finds answers in character

Sunday, April 16, 2000

The media spotlight returns to Columbine High School this week. One year after the tragic killing of 12 Columbine students and a teacher, pundits and experts struggle once again to explain the unexplainable. Political leaders push new proposals for gun control and safer schools. And parents across the nation relive images of their worst nightmare.

Buried under all of this commentary and debate about how to fix schools (and kids) is the overlooked story of how thousands of parents, students, teachers, and administrators are working together every day to build good character in safe and caring schools.

Case in point: You probably haven't heard about the other Columbine school also in the news this week.

The Character Education Partnership just announced that Columbine Elementary School — located an hour's drive from the high school of the same name — is one of 19 semifinalists for a National School of Character award. This is the kind of quiet “good news” that doesn't get much news-media attention.

What's happening at Columbine Elementary School? Character education is taken seriously. Students are held to high standards of personal responsibility and respect for others. Teachers and students get training in conflict resolution. Class meetings help students to develop positive relationships based on mutual respect. Bullying and name-calling aren't tolerated. And perhaps most important, parents are fully involved in developing and sustaining these efforts.

The results won't surprise anyone who has seen quality character-education programs in action. Students have positive attitudes about their school. Reading scores are going up. Discipline referrals to the office are going down.

Columbine Elementary may be doing more than many schools, but it is not unique. A growing number of schools throughout the country are developing comprehensive character-education programs that model and teach the core moral values widely held in our communities.

As the word spreads about successful programs, many states are beginning to mandate character education as part of the core mission of public education. Unfortunately, it takes tragedies like the one at Columbine High School to wake many Americans up to the crisis of character in our nation. But school shootings don't begin to define the real problem. Actually, school violence is down nationwide and kids are safer in schools than almost anywhere else.

The deeper challenge is the moral crisis confronting our nation's youth. From high rates of teen-age pregnancy and drug abuse to the epidemic of lying, cheating, and stealing, the contours of our underlying problem aren't hard to see.

That's why security guards and metal detectors aren't the answer. At best they are a Band-Aid, and at worst they make kids feel even less safe.

The only long-term solution, of course, is a re-commitment to moral character and civic virtue by all sectors of our society. Schools can't tackle this challenge alone. Parents, faith communities, businesses, government — all have a vital role to play.

But schools can be the catalyst for change. Columbine Elementary and other schools of character demonstrate just how much parents and educators can accomplish when they work together for the common good.

Getting character education right takes work — a lot of work. But if we care about our kids and our nation, we have no choice but to try.

For more information about the National Schools of Character program, contact the Character Education Partnership at 1-800-988-8081 or visit its Web site at