Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Building Character

By Miriam Schulman

Photos by Charles Barry

James A. Michener once said, "Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries." SCU graduates and alumni who are teachers at Northern California court-community schools put that idea into practice with a unique program combining education and values.

When you walk into Howard Gipstein's classroom, you are reminded of your favorite English teacher, the one who plastered posters of Richard Brautigan, student poetry, and magazine photograph collages on every available surface. The first clue that this is not your average high school comes when Gipstein '98 checks to see that every pencil he has handed out is returned; he uses a special, numbered apparatus to make sure none of the boys walks off with what might, in his hands, become a makeshift knife. Gipstein teaches at the Osborne School, an educational institution on the grounds of Santa Clara County's Juvenile Hall. Here, the goal is to turn these pencils into weapons in a different kind of fight: the struggle to help young offenders reflect on their decisions and strengthen their character.

All the teachers at Osborne are trained in the Character-Based Literacy (CBL) curriculum, developed at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and supported in part by grants from the Markkula Family Foundation and the Walter S. Johnson Foundation. The curriculum, which combines teaching language arts with teaching values, is now in use at alternative and court-community institutions throughout Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Contra Costa, and Alameda counties. Beginning in 2003-04, two more California counties, including San Benito, will join the program. Through it, thousands of at-risk youth are challenged to improve their performance, both academically and ethically.

So how do you teach ethics to these young people? Pretty much the same way you teach ethics to anyone else, answers Steve Johnson, who devised the CBL program and uses it in mainstream as well as alternative classrooms.

Johnson M.A. '85 is director of character education at the Ethics Center and director of alternative and correctional education in SCU's Department of Education. His work with young people is based on what he calls a "triangle model" of moral development. "Basically, we look at three sets of factors that influence how human character develops: values, thought processes, and skills," he explains.

The curriculum is divided into themes based on values such as respect, responsibility, and integrity. Students read stories, poems, and plays that reflect these values. For example, Osborne teacher David Cliff says he might "throw the word integrity up on the board and have the kids brainstorm about what it means. Then we define the value: Integrity is when your actions align with your beliefs. We'll talk with the kids about whether the characters in the story display integrity and about that character trait in their own lives."

But it isn't enough to read and talk about values. The CBL curriculum also challenges the thought processes, or cognitive distortions, that get in the way of kids doing what they already know they ought to do. One example is the tendency to blame others. As Gipstein puts it, "If [a kid] goes to juvenile hall for stealing a car, it was the victim's fault for leaving the car there."

In addition, CBL teachers focus on skills. That means reading and writing, but it also means ethical skills, such as anger control, understanding the difference between needs and wants, and moral imagination.

Life imitates art

John Horvath '00, who works at the Girls' Secure Unit at Osborne, uses CBL methods to teach "Romeo and Juliet." After the girls read a scene from Shakespeare, Horvath has them act out different plays that present moral dilemmas. The plays have no endings, so the girls must come up with their own. Sometimes they make the moral choice, but when they don't, Horvath tries to get them to reflect on the consequences of their behavior. "I ask them, 'What do you think might happen to you if you did that? Do you think you might end up…' he waits the few beats of the natural comic, …'at juvenile hall'?"

Character-Based Literacy techniques are also a staple for Inez Okamura, a program consultant for the Ethics Center and principal of Santa Clara County's Alternative Placement Academy for nonviolent offenders. Recently, she was working with a young substance abuser. She noticed that he had been crying, depressed, and unable to remain in class. In talking with him, Okamura, who is working toward a master's in educational administration at SCU, learned that he was mourning his failure to say thank you to his grandmother before she died. As Okamura tells it, "He realized he had been on the receiving end of her love, but he hadn't been mature enough to be responsible for his own behavior. I turned it into a writing assignment: 'Write a letter to your grandmother. Tell her you're grateful for what she did for you. But also write about your responsibility around your drug use.'"

Learning to teach

To fully appreciate Horvath's and Okamura's stories, it's important to contrast them with how classrooms like these used to be run. Before CBL was instituted in 1998, incarcerated youngsters' writing tended to be confined to filling out worksheets. In Monterey County, the juvenile hall school not only had no Shakespeare, it had few books of any kind because administrators were afraid the students would throw them at each other. The court-community system was not yet teaching to the California English-Language Arts Standards.

To be fair, instituting standards at juvenile halls seemed futile to many educators, partly because of the extreme transience of the student population. Cliff estimates that about 50 percent of the youngsters at Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall will be released within four days. When these children were included in regular classrooms, the turnover was almost unmanageable.

Even now, when youngsters are placed in classrooms only after four days, most will stay at the hall about 21 days before being sent to one of the youth ranches or a treatment program or the California Youth Authority. Then the child might escape from a ranch or commit another offense and start the whole process over again.

As Barbara Hansen M.A. '79, special education teacher at Osborne, describes it, "Osborne is different from any other place that's trying to 'do school.' A teacher can have a class one Monday, and by the next Monday it may well have changed by two-thirds. Every day is like the first day of school. It's like trying to lay the template of education on top of a moving mass of people."

In part, CBL was a response to the transience problem. By instituting the curriculum not only in the juvenile halls but also in the alternative community schools and ranches where many offenders end up, the court-community system could offer much-needed continuity. Spreading the program to surrounding counties also allowed for a less interrupted academic experience for young people who often move from place to place.

Another problem the court schools had to address was the skill level in the typical juvenile hall classroom. Cliff took a "snapshot" of academic performance one day during the 2001-02 school year and found that the average 10th grader read at the level of youngsters in the fifth month of fifth grade. Of 303 students, 99 had been identified as having special needs.

In fact, the lack of special education services for incarcerated youth was one impetus for changes in the system. In 1998, a study by the Santa Clara County Office of Education found that of about 300 kids in juvenile hall, 90 had previously been identified as qualifying for special education services. Of those, only 10 had a current Individualized Education Program as required by law.

That year, a special committee was formed to improve the education of children in the court system, but committee members had a tough time agreeing on the causes of the problem. At Johnson's invitation, the group began meeting at SCU and focusing "not on the history but on what we wanted to have happen from here on out," he says.

CBL grew out of those discussions. It was designed to be effective with those performing at all academic levels. It was clearly linked to the California standards in language arts, so that young people in the program were preparing themselves for the high school exit exams that all students will have to pass beginning with the class of 2004.

Janet Enright had just begun her duties as principal of Osborne at that time, and she spearheaded the curriculum changes. As she remembers it, "We were under intense fire and were really being looked at with a microscope. Character-Based Literacy ... gave us a solid foundation for improving the way that we teach and kids learn. It was absolutely the major piece that helped us move through that process, which was originally highly contentious, to one where we could come to agreement about kids' critical needs and how we were going to address them."

Reading, writing, results

The standards and coherence of the curriculum are having academic results in the court-community school system. Okamura, for example, administers the California STAR tests to her students at the Alternative Placement Academy every 60 days. She has found improvement in reading and math skills from half a year to as much as a year in many cases.

Enright has not yet crafted a quantitative assessment tool for the more transient population at juvenile hall. But Osborne was visited in June by the Juvenile Justice Commission, one of the groups that had been critical of the school before it instituted the CBL curriculum. "They gave the staff accolades for the kind of changes they've seen at this facility," Enright reports.

Progress in character is harder to measure, and sometimes instructors doubt whether they're having an impact. Gipstein, for example, tells about teaching Convicted in the Womb, Carl Upchurch's memoir about his journey from gang-banging to social activism. "The consensus was he was a wuss for quitting the gang," he remembers. "I was disappointed at the time, but I realized a lot of these kids are facing pretty heavy issues. They don't know when they're leaving, they don't know where they're going. Faced with that, everything else seems superfluous."

On the other hand, Gipstein has had his share of rewarding moments: A poet himself, Gipstein likes to turn young people on to the art, slipping serious students works by such classic poets as William Blake. "One kid wrote me a beautiful poem about how I had inspired him to read and to go to college," he remembers. "I was really surprised because he had been kind of quiet in class."

Johnson always reminds the alternative school teachers he trains: "You're the most normal thing that happens to these kids during the day. They're going to school. They're being treated like students." They also eat and sleep regularly, which is more than can be said of some of their lives on the outside.

Besides, Johnson points out that character development is hard and never-ending work-not just for at-risk youth but for everyone. "It's not like you have character or you don't have it. We're always progressing and developing. The danger in the juvenile court system is that we will dismiss these kids as not 'having' character, and then we won't try to help them develop it."

The Osborne teachers show few signs of succumbing to this danger. Gipstein might be speaking for most of them when he says, "I like working with kids that most teachers find problematic."

A more serious danger may be cutbacks in state funds for education, expected because of California's looming budget deficit. The problem, according to Enright, is "exacerbated for the Alternative Schools Department by numerous years of not receiving the annual 'cost of living adjustment' due to statewide equalization efforts for court and community schools."

Osborne has already lost five teachers due to diminished budgets and resulting cutbacks in personnel. Horvath will transfer to the juvenile hall school in Monterey County, which also has a CBL program. Gipstein will be teaching for the Campbell School District.

A rewarding career

Neither man had any intention of leaving alternative education, which they, like many of the Osborne teachers, seem to have chosen after testing more mainstream jobs and finding them wanting. Gipstein was a tech writer. Cliff worked in the food service industry. Horvath has a degree in Japanese and had considered a career in high tech. When asked why he came to Osborne, he replies wryly, "You mean, why would I want to be underpaid and underappreciated?" His answer is simple: "Some things are more important than material wealth."

Special ed teacher Hansen had a private practice working with the deaf, tried the corporate world, taught sign language at a community college, and raised her own children. When she was looking for school jobs, she interviewed at a closed campus in Milpitas. The environment felt so claustrophobic to her that she jumped at the chance to teach at Osborne. She says, "That Milpitas school felt like prison. I never feel like that here."

Miriam Schulman is director of communications for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

This article originally appeared in Santa Clara Magazine, August 2002.