New program puts character on lesson plan

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With students assaulting teachers, phoning in bomb threats and joining gangs, and with none of the middle schools meeting federal benchmarks, Tony Warenzak wonders just how much character Richmond County's character education is instilling.

Since 2000, state law has required schools to integrate anti-bullying lessons and at least 27 character traits into classroom instruction. But use of the current character curriculum -- Character First!, rooted in the teachings of a Chicago-based evangelist -- has become scattershot, Richmond County schools Superintendent Dana Bedden said.

Mr. Warenzak, the proprietor of The Athenaeum bookstore on Monte Sano Avenue, is leading a drive to overhaul and reboot the program. Through his nonprofit, Augusta's Call to Character, he's in the early stages of a plan to form character committees in schools, set up adopt-a-school relationships with businesses and develop a speakers bureau to send volunteers to classrooms and student assemblies.

Based on talks with teachers, some schools are truly schools of character, Mr. Warenzak said, but with others it stops at the street with a word on a billboard. The character word for March was discretion, say signs outside several elementary schools. Next month, it will be creativity.

"There's a minimalistic attitude," Mr. Warenzak said. "For us, character is more than just a word on a marquee. It's a way of life. It's a paradigm that everybody buys into, with one voice."

Dr. Bedden, soon to enter his second school year as superintendent, has given Mr. Warenzak carte blanche to start programs in every county school, so long as principals agree to it. Mr. Warenzak began last week with a kickoff dinner at Lamar Elementary School. Guest speaker Mark Miller, the dean of Augusta State University's Hull College of Business, told an auditorium half-filled with pupils, parents and teachers that real leaders "don't just do things right, they do the right thing."

Character education at Lamar had become defunct, teachers and administrators said. Fifth-grade teacher Darlene Gaines, who's worked there almost 20 years, recalls a lot of enthusiasm after Character First! was adopted.

"Once the hype died down, so did Character First!," Ms. Gaines said.

With so much emphasis on test scores and Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, teachers started putting their white character notebooks aside, she said. Pupils aren't tested on it, so it didn't seem important.

This year, teachers didn't even get calendars for the monthly character words, Ms. Gaines said.

First-year Principal Ben Motley said he's asked Mr. Warenzak to start by working with fifth-graders bound for Tubman Middle School, which has discipline problems and is one of the worst schools in the state under No Child Left Behind standards.

Character revival

Character education has come and gone in American schools since the 1890s, the last major renaissance happening in the early 1990s. At least 30 states mandate or encourage it in public schools. Georgia and South Carolina mandate it, and school systems that don't comply could lose state funding.

The goal is to promote a functioning democracy, because a democracy's survival depends on its future citizens' good judgment, said Marvin Berkowitz, a character education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Mr. Warenzak, a former public speaking and peak performance teacher at Savannah River College, wants schools' new programs developed from the ground up, or as he puts it, "from the inside out." New sets of character words could be drawn up by school committees, making pupils and teachers more likely to stick with them.

"Change must come from in here," he told the assembly with a palm on his chest.

He said he'll also pick and choose pieces of other programs, including Los Angeles-based Character Counts!, founded by ethicist Michael Josephson.

Character Counts! has six main facets: fairness, trustworthiness, citizenship, respect, responsibility and caring. Mr. Warenzak said he probably won't use much from Character First!, which came "from the outside in."

That curriculum is based on tenets of Bill Gothard, whose Institute in Basic Life Principles oversees a religious empire that includes centers for troubled youths, a home-school curriculum, an Internet filtering program, a Christian law school, orphanages, a paramilitary academy for emergency disaster responders and a medical training center. Some Christian cult-watch groups have criticized the Rev. Gothard's doctrines as overly legalistic and authoritarian.

"I know there's a lot of attack on what I've been trying to do over the years," the Rev. Gothard said. "It's just really amazing, because so much of it's untrue. And so that's only allowed us to deepen our message and widen the outreach of it, so I rejoice in that."

The Character First! words correspond to what he deems are the 49 commands of Christ, or laws given to mankind by God. The curriculum was developed by Tom Hill, one of the Rev. Gothard's board members from 1993 to 2005.

Mr. Hill used a secularized version of the institute's character training to improve employee performance at Kimray Inc., an oil valve manufacturing company where he was president. The program spread to other companies, police departments and schools, and he incorporated his Character Training Institute, based in Oklahoma City, in 1996.

Practicing lessons

Augusta and Aiken became "character cities" in 1999 under former Augusta Mayor Bob Young and Aiken Mayor Fred Cavanaugh. North Augusta also signed on and started using the character words in 2002. Character First! is still being used in the cities' government offices and in some of Richmond and Aiken counties' schools.

Richmond County's school system paid about $105,000 for the Oklahoma City materials in three installments in 1998, 1999 and 2000, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Virginia Bradshaw said.

At Warren Road Elementary School, pupils from each class who best display the trait go to character breakfasts. Principal Connie Ryals credits Character First! for keeping discipline problems at her school low.

At a Richmond County school board meeting earlier this month, student council members from Spirit Creek Middle and A.R. Johnson and C.T. Walker magnet schools gave speeches about discretion -- "the ability to control one's actions with certain restraint."

East Aiken Elementary School's pupils put on a play each month about a character word.

At Augusta's water and sewer department's monthly meetings, employees take turns giving presentations on the virtue of the month. February's word was deference, defined as "limiting my freedom so I do not offend the tastes of those around me." Inside a bulletin is a lesson from the gray wolf -- "how deference orders and preserves the pack."

In Aiken, about 85 people, most of them city employees, have breakfast at the municipal complex each month and learn about a character word. Blue character banners are affixed to traffic signal posts downtown. They're on a different schedule in Aiken, where March's word is compassion.

"I don't hear of any fights we have among our employees," Mr. Cavanaugh said, "or people calling me saying I'm not being treated well by the department head or whoever."

Mr. Hill said he understands why some people have a problem with Character First!, but he insists there's no religious agenda.

For Dr. Berkowitz, the character education professor, words such as deference, meekness and obedience, all part of the Character First! cycle, give him pause.

"That's the antithesis of what we want in a democracy," he said.

The president of the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners in Cincinnati, suspecting an improper mix of church and state, wrote Mr. Hill a letter recently seeking an explanation. Character First! is used in schools, police and fire departments, a youth jail and youth treatment centers there.

In his reply, Mr. Hill wrote that the character words are universal, "qualities that anyone could have made."

Hard work ahead

Told about efforts to overhaul Augusta schools' character programs, Mr. Hill said that's probably easier said than done. The Character First! materials are flexible and can be used over and over again as the words circulate through multiple nine-month school years. Whether teachers use them is a matter of school leadership, not the materials themselves, he said.

"I guarantee you that if they go out and develop a whole new curriculum, it's going to cost a whole lot more than it would cost to buy the materials," Mr. Hill said. "And I have nothing to gain, because I've already sold you the materials."

Mr. Warenzak said the new model won't cost governments anything. The nonprofit has a grant writer and relies on donations.

He plans to make The Athenaum, which specializes in character education books, the hub for Augusta's Call to Character and cordon off the attached Catholic book and gift store. He wants to expand to all Augusta schools, Columbia County schools and area private schools.

"The community needs to buy into it," Mr. Warenzak said. "We're trying to show that character education is everyone's job."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or


Both Georgia and South Carolina laws say schools should focus on the following traits:

- Courage

- Patriotism

- Citizenship

- Honesty

- Fairness

- Respect for others

- Kindness

- Cooperation

- Self-respect

- Self-control

- Courtesy, compassion

- Diligence

- Generosity

- Punctuality

- Cleanliness

- Cheerfulness

- Patience

- Sportsmanship

- Loyalty

- Virtue


Georgia law says schools' character curriculums should focus on discouraging bullying and developing the specified character traits, including a few not on South Carolina's list:

- Tolerance

- School pride

- Respect for the environment

- Respect for the creator

- Creativity

- Perseverance


South Carolina law says school districts must, "to the extent possible," incorporate the specified traits in character education. It also lists traits Georgia does not, including:

- Respect for authority

- Good manners

- Good work ethics

- Sound educational habits

Source: Character First! character quality schedule;; Georgia and South Carolina state codes


All 49 of the Character First! words have counterparts in what evangelist Bill Gothard calls the 49 commands of Christ. His Web site pairs the commands with the character qualities below.

Orderliness Receive God's power (Luke 24:49)
Forgiveness Forgive offenders (Matthew 18:21-22)
Sincerity Be perfect (Matthew 5:48)
Virtue Beware of leaven (Matthew 16:6)
Honor/Reverence Honor your parents (Matthew 15:4)
Justice Go to offenders (Matthew 18:15)
Gentleness Love your neighbor (Matthew 22:39)
Faith Practice secret disciplines (Matthew 6:1-18)
Responsibility Be reconciled (Matthew 5:24-25)
Patience Ask in faith (Matthew 21:21-22)
Initiative Seek God's kingdom (Matthew 6:33)
Self-Control Do not commit adultery (Matthew 5:29-30)
Punctuality Await my return (Matthew 24:42-44)
Resourcefulness Ask, seek and knock (Matthew 7:7-8)
Tolerance Despise not little ones (Matthew 18:10)
Creativity Love your enemies (Matthew 5:44)
Discretion Do not cast pearls (Matthew 7:6)
Endurance Watch and pray (Matthew 26:41)
Meekness Follow me (Matthew 4:19)
Benevolence Honor God's law (Matthew 5:17-18)
Diligence Keep my commandments (John 14:15)
Loyalty Honor marriage (Matthew 19:6)
Hospitality Bring in the poor (Luke 14:12-14)
Sensitivity Do unto others (Matthew 7:12)
Enthusiasm Love the Lord (Matthew 22:37-38)
Flexibility Make disciples (Matthew 28:20)
Discernment Judge not (Matthew 7:1)
Cautiousness Baptize my disciples (Matthew 28:19)
Boldness Fear God, not man (Matthew 10:26)
Security Be born again (John 3:7)
Contentment Beware of covetousness (Luke 12:15)
Humility Repent (Matthew 4:17)
Dependability Feed my sheep (John 21:15-16)
Thoroughness Take, eat and drink (Matthew 26:26-27)
Determination Deny yourself (Luke 9:23)
Thriftiness Lay up treasures (Matthew 6:19-21)
Availability Be a servant (Matthew 20:26-28)
Deference Go the second mile (Matthew 5:38-42)
Compassion Pray for laborers (Matthew 9:38)
Persuasiveness Be a house of prayer (Matthew 21:13)
Wisdom Be wise as serpents (Matthew 10:16)
Joyfulness Rejoice (Matthew 5:12)
Alertness Beware of false prophets (Matthew 7:15)
Decisiveness Choose the narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14)
Truthfulness Keep your word (Matthew 5:37)
Obedience Take my yoke (Matthew 11:29)
Gratefulness Render to Caesar (Matthew 22:19-21)
Generosity Let your light shine (Matthew 5:16)
Attentiveness Hear God's voice (Matthew 11:15)

Source: Character First! character quality schedule;; Georgia and South Carolina state codes

Comments (12) Add comment
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Richmondcountyteacher 03/30/08 - 11:34 am
Character is important but

Character is important but when are we going to stop trying to make our schools raise our children? As a teacher I struggle to teach the required academic subjects in the limited time I have to teach!
As a "Reading First" school we are under a federal mandate to teach reading (not writing or english) for 2 hours and 45 minutes each day. We have been told that we will be teaching math (currently a 65 minute block) for 135 minutes next year. Subtract another hour and fifteen minutes for PE, lunch, and recess (a rarity) and that leaves roughly an hour to teach writing, social studies, health, and science!
Dr. Bedden has said complainers who can't do their job should "get off the bus". I love teaching and don't want to get off the bus but I do wish our bus was heading to real destination rather than "Pie in the Skyville". It's great to want to give students positive programs like Character First but in return please give me my full time teaching assistant, a smaller class (I have 25 first graders), and more understanding. Most of us are teachers who want to do their best but we are not super human time benders who can teach 8+ hours of curriculum (plus character?) in 6 hour

lady_alessandra 03/30/08 - 11:43 am
One middle school does meet

One middle school does meet federal requirements and that's Davidson. There are 6th-8th graders there.

iletuknow 03/30/08 - 11:51 am
Trying to do in an hour what

Trying to do in an hour what should have been done since birth and at home. Good luck!

Craig Spinks
Craig Spinks 03/30/08 - 01:16 pm
Inasmuch as the CSRA is

Inasmuch as the CSRA is becoming a retiree colony, why don't our school systems recruit retirees to assist overwhelmed teachers like "(R)marievteacher?" Or is she left on her own "to sink or swim"? And her students with her. If someone thinks that "(R)marievteacher" is unique, an unscheduled visit to classrooms in your neighborhood public school should inform your thinking.

Craig Spinks
Craig Spinks 03/30/08 - 01:38 pm
And, KUDOS to

And, KUDOS to "(R)marievteacher" for sharing her frustrations in a public forum!

NotyourDadsBuick 03/30/08 - 06:41 pm
I guess this has become a

I guess this has become a priority after seeing what a purely Republican administration did to America both at home and abroad.

TomHill 03/31/08 - 12:00 pm
I appreciate Johnny Edwards

I appreciate Johnny Edwards in depth reporting on character education in Richmond County. Character education is not a "course" to be taught one hour a week or even one hour a day. Character is a way of life and can be taught by everyone in the course of daily activities. Character education fails when we try to make it a course. I also applaud Mr. Tony Warenzak's interest in character education. True success in any educational area occurs when the local community takes an interest and becomes involved. It is my hope that many residents of Richmond County would join him and actively support the teachers and character education. That would help to insure success. I would also encourage him to not "throw out the baby with the bath water." The Character First materials you have are timeless and include much that could continue to be used and would provide great benefit to the schools and community if used. It has been our pleasure at Character First to be associated with the Richmond County schools as well as thousands of other schools all around the world.

Hifido 04/01/08 - 04:57 pm
Another article about

Another article about character education that leaves me greatly concerned.

I am continually baffled at how character education - which on the surface of it sounds great - can win funding and accolades while never demonstrating evidence of either need or results. Is all that is required for adoption is a slick marketing campaign to the politicians and school boards in order to acquire popular support (complete with entreaties to emotional and fear issues and a healthy dose of language from pop psychology and a wink to Christian religion) and then you are done? Who could object to "character education", right?

Research on the subject has yet to turn up one peer-reviewed study demonstrating any scientifically validated need for or result from character education programs. On the other hand, flaws in the "research" showing "correlations" are well documented. There is really no excuse for a reputable study to not have been conducted at this point - especially, when considering that character education has no basis in accepted educational theory in the first place. Such a dearth of validity makes it hard to just give it the benefit of the doubt.

Hifido 04/01/08 - 04:57 pm
Today's character education

Today's character education would seem to fall right in line with a string of similarly flawed and famously failed school programs: "religious education", "moral education", "values education"... However, not to be deterred by lack of results, character education programs abound, forging ahead – each trotting out entirely different lists of politically-entangled core values and means for implementing them! Their dissensions from one another's goals and criticisms of each other is enlightening.

Certainly, it is unfortunate for the entire field that there is no valid psychological definition of "character". The term has no clinical meaning; which probably also explains why there can be no way to measure if an individual has a deficit of it, or if a school program can improve it. If there was anything quantifiable, one might be able to judge the benefit of one approach over the other – or any benefit at all.

Hifido 04/01/08 - 04:58 pm
It is telling, perhaps, that

It is telling, perhaps, that the one thing these competing programs all agree on is that the end goal is the child or employee's compliance with authority and conformity with conservative values. Is that how we wish to define the greatness of America's "national character" these days? What about the spirit of inquiry, independence and innovation that defines the true character of a great nation? On the much-lauded "Magic School Bus" TV show, the class slogan is "Take Chances, Make Mistakes. Get Messy!", just the opposite of the stated goals on character education lists.
To his credit, Michael Josephson, founder and head of Character Counts!, admits in personal correspondence that I may be right on these points, because... well, who really knows?
Sure, on the surface of it, who wouldn't be in favor of something as grand sounding as character education? Yet, slick marketing aside, that is not enough to justify exposing our children to such an unknown, ideologically-driven quantity. As far as the schools go, even if character education could be proven to achieve its conservative aims, public education has no business taking the culture wars to children.

Hifido 04/01/08 - 04:59 pm
In sum, character education

In sum, character education sure sounds good - if only it worked. Isn't it time for some real investigative reporting into the claims of character education, instead of all the cheerleading?
For essays and references, please see
Anthologized in "Taking Sides: Issues in Educational Practice", 2008 McGraw-Hill/CLS

Hifido 04/01/08 - 05:00 pm
"Teachers and schools tend to

"Teachers and schools tend to mistake good behavior for good character. What they prize is docility, suggestibility; the child who will do what he is told; or even better, the child who will do what is wanted without even having to be told. They value most in children what children least value in themselves. small wonder that their effort to build character is such a failure; they don't know it when they see it."
How Children Fail, John Holt

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