When former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman introduced a plan in June of 1999 that would help local school districts address the issue of character education with statewide funding for a program, North Bergen officials jumped at the chance to apply for the grant that would bring such a program to its district.
"In this day and age, it was necessary to have something for the students," said John Belluardo, who is the district's coordinator of the Student Assistance Resource Program. "We need to bring an awareness to the students on how they're supposed to act."
Last Wednesday, after receiving a $20,000 grant from the state Department of Education, the North Bergen's Character Leadership Education program was introduced to parents at Kennedy School, where the program had begun last month.
Teachers and students have been participating in the program, where a certain virtue is focused on throughout the course of the month and that virtue is discussed and taught as part of the regular curriculum, in the form of a lesson kit. The kit is filled with stories, discussion projects and exercises that address seven virtues: Courage, Loyalty, Justice, Hope, Honesty, Respect and Love.
"Each teacher designates two lessons per week on the topic, and it is incorporated into the regular school day," Belluardo explained. "And the projects that begin in the classroom are extended into their home lives, so the parents get involved. This way, it's a partnership between the teachers, the students and the parents."
After reviewing the possibility of implementing the program, an advisory group of teachers, along with Parent-Teacher Association representatives, decided to use the Heartwood Curriculum by Scholastic program.
The program will be introduced at both Lincoln and Kennedy schools and will be taught to students from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade.
"With a program like this, we couldn't introduce it in all the schools, especially with such a small grant," Belluardo said. "We decided to start with two of the smaller schools and gear toward the lower grades. We've found that it's usually around fourth grade where bullying starts between students and then it just builds up more and more from there. This way, it brings an awareness to the students right away."
John Griffin, an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher, is the Kennedy School coordinator of the Character Leadership Education program.
"They're never too young to start learning about respect, honesty, and loyalty," Griffin said. "Each classroom focuses on the same theme for the entire month. We started in March with honesty and now, we're teaching respect. The way kids are today, there's a real need for something like this. Of course, we know we may never reach 100 percent of the kids. But if we do reach a couple of kids, then the efforts will have paid off."
A recent study done nationally by the Child Development Project has shown that the Character Leadership Education program has resulted in higher grades overall, more group involvement, such as sports and community organizations, active class participation, lower school misconduct and higher achievement scores.
The study also suggests that implementation of such a program decreases the chances of school violence. Students use less physical aggression and verbal threats, and schools that implemented the program were later less prone for any violent behavior later on. Which means a safer and calmer educational setting for all. But according to Belluardo, the success of the program doesn't end in the classroom.
"We need the parent involvement," Belluardo said. "We need to have the student go home and continue the process at home. That's why we had to have the parents come in and see exactly what is going on. The parents need to know."
"It's important to have a program that gets the teachers, the students and the parents involved," Fischbach said. "The enthusiasm behind the program is very encouraging. The teachers like it, the students like it and the parents seem to like it."
Alison Brache, the mother of two Kennedy School students, ages 10 and eight, applauded the program.
"I think it's very important for the students to get a handle on what is right and what is wrong," Brache said. "The children should be more open in school and tell their teachers what might be bothering them. This way, they're learning about honesty and they're speaking about it, whenever they feel something is wrong. I stress that my children tell me everything and it's important that others do the same. I think the students are very impressionable at an early age and I believe that it's never too early."
Because it was a one-time grant, it's not known whether the program will continue past the current school year. "We did some pre-testing to see what knowledge the students had on the themes, like what they thought honesty meant or what respect meant," Belluardo said. "In different backgrounds and cultures, perhaps those words mean different things. After the program, we'll do a post-test to see how much they've learned and use that as a measuring tool. If it is working, then we will recommend to the Board in June to continue the program and expand it to other schools."
North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, who also serves as an assistant superintendent, applauded the efforts. "With the horrendous events we've all witnessed and done by adolescents in the schools, we have become more aware," Sacco said. "In those instances, it may have been too late, but this way, we're reaching the students when they are young enough. Hopefully, we can change the direction where they're going."