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Character-Based Education in Washington - 2002-09-08

It's back to school time and American kids attend a variety of them. Most go to public schools, free for everyone; some go to private and parochial schools, which can be very costly and inclined to accept select applicants. But some school districts also have public charter schools, which are funded publicly, but can make independent decisions about curriculum, hiring and day-to-day policies. That allows charter schools to develop a distinct culture and atmosphere that works for their specific student body. Zlatica Hoke reports a Washington D.C. charter school has achieved success by emphasizing character development over ability, and effort over achievement.

Hyde Leadership Public Charter School is located on T-Street in northeast Washington, an area struggling with poverty and crime. Many children here grow up with only one parent. Many live in dysfunctional families. But for some of them, attending Hyde School has made a big difference.

"I have a chance to be understood by the people, peers. I have a chance to walk around my class, talk about the situation that I might have. I have a chance to communicate with my teachers more when the class period is over and it helps me out," says one student.

Teenager Joshua Williams seems comfortable at this school. Three years ago he did not do well in a public school. He was inattentive in class, he did not do his work, and he was often too aggressive. So he was transferred to a special education public school for children with learning and behavioral problems. He was also put on medication for hyperactivity disorder. But he seemed to be getting worse and his mother was getting desperate.

"Well, the special ed(ucation) system wasn't working for me or for him. He wasn't learning. He was just contained and when I say contained, I mean in a room - padded. So he wasn't really learning anything," says his mother, Valery Williams.She was told Joshua would never improve, something she could not accept. Then she heard of a new charter school in the neighborhood, one that put more emphasis on character development than on academics. She applied and her son was accepted. When the school started, Ms Williams found out that she too had a lot to learn. "At Hyde, you have to pretty much start within yourself, your family, your culture maybe, your life style at home, the different reasons for kids going through what they go trough."

Parents whose children attend Hyde school must join a parenting program, which includes periodical family evenings at school. The goal is to teach family members the importance of good communication.

In this class, parents and children are learning how to express their feelings more appropriately. For some family members, it may be a painful experience.

Washington's Hyde School is one of five schools founded by Joseph Gauld, an educator from New England, who felt that schools for young people focused too much on college placement and too little on their character. His son Malcolm Gauld is the current president of five Hyde schools on the East Coast.

He and his wife Laura co-authored the book "The Biggest Job We'll Ever Have," in which they promote five values that they believe make up good character: courage, integrity, leadership, curiosity and concern. "The thing that's really been inspiring is: regardless of race or income level or socio- economic status or whatever you want to call it, those words are universal and all the families that we worked with want those values, want those principles, as part of the educational experience for their kids," he says.

Washington Hyde School, which opened three years ago, accepts students from kindergarten through second grade and from seventh through 12th grade, and is expanding to include all grades in the near future. The focus is on students' individual potential. So in addition to regular achievement grades, based on tests, homework and essays, there are effort grades.

"You may have a student whose ability is low, but they are working harder than any other student. That effort grade would show that they are making that extra effort, says teacher Nancy Stalnaker. She says at Hyde, good students are expected to help others.

Twelfth grader Zikia Harris says she likes that. "Leadership has an important role in my life because now I have to be a leader for my peers, myself and my brother and my siblings in everything - how I do my work, how I study, what I do around the house, what I do here, how I act in the hallway, how I act when I am at class."

Every student at Hyde has to participate in athletics and arts as well as academic subjects. For example, all children have to participate in sports games, not only those who are good at sports. And everyone has to sing, regardless of his or her ability. The belief is that doing something a student is not comfortable doing fosters courage. Parents and teachers serve as role models.

"And the parents and the faculty - everyone is required to do an audition," says one teacher. "So that's the first thing as a teacher, when you get here, you stand up in front of the faculty and you sing a song with no music … parents too."

Students get a chance to evaluate their teachers and their parents. But they have to start with themselves. "I am doing good, but I can do better. I am just doing average. I am trying to get above that level."

Thirty-six years ago, Joseph Gauld founded the first Hyde school for young people who he felt needed lifestyle training as well as academic learning. His character-based program seems to work well for these kids at Washington's Hyde School.