At St. Genevieve High School in Panorama City, students greet visitors with handshakes and warm smiles. Football players are taught to respect opposing team members. Seniors welcome incoming freshmen with banners and breakfasts, instead of bullying them. And rowdy students are sent to the "Dean of Character Formation" to reflect on their behavior.
"This school concentrates on helping us make good choices once we leave school grounds," said Christina Zaldana, a 17-year-old senior. "This whole character thing makes us more polite."
St. Genevieve, a 420-student Catholic school, is at the forefront of "character education," a growing movement designed to instill such principles as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship in youth. It recently was given one of 10 "National Schools of Character" awards by the Character Education Partnership, a nonsectarian national group that helps build ethical values in schools.
Hundreds of schools across the country have adopted character education in recent years, according to ethics experts. Fourteen states including California mandate some form of it, although only a few fund such initiatives. However, 47 state school systems have received federal grants to implement the programs, and President Bush last month declared a "National Character Counts Week."
Bob Collins, a superintendent for the southwest San Fernando Valley area of the Los Angeles Unified School District, adopted character education three years ago.
He requires his subdistrict's 77,000 students to sign "commitment to character contracts," in which they promise to be responsible citizens. In addition, students write essays about values and ethics, and are recognized in assemblies when they demonstrate respect, fairness or responsibility.
"I don't believe that you can really deliver a quality education unless you also have students fully engaged as citizens," he said.
The push to instill such values as tolerance and honesty has been prompted by high-profile school shootings and public scandals, said Esther Schaeffer, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Character Education Partnership.
After the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, educators began asking, "How can we create an environment where students are more respectful of each other, where we don't have kids feeling like outcasts? How can we create a situation where students feel more responsible for each other?" she said.
Character education can be woven into many parts of the curriculum, Schaeffer said. For example, in a lesson about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a teacher could direct students to debate and research the moral dilemmas that the signers faced, she said.
"They get children starting to think ... that decisions have major implications, and obviously some aren't that easy," Schaeffer said. "Like Truman dropping the A-bomb. There's a major ethical decision there. What's right and wrong?"
Too many students these days cheat, lie, steal, fight and turn out to be "brats," said Michael Josephson, founder of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving society's ethics. "There's a lot of data that shows young people are developing attitudes that are not only destructive to themselves, but to society," he said.
His group's Character Counts! program of lesson plans and other activities is being used in El Segundo and Manhattan Beach and in Collins' subdistrict.
The character education movement is trying to combat unethical decisions such as those one hears about frequently through the media: Lakers' star Kobe Bryant's cheating on his wife, corporate executives' cheating people out of money or New York Times reporter Jayson Blair's fabricating sources and information in news articles, Josephson said.
"These people didn't lack IQ points," he said. "They lacked a moral compass."
Daniel Horn, principal of St. Genevieve, said the Columbine tragedy pushed him to try to transform his campus into a community where students respect and take care of each other. St. Genevieve was the only California school to be named a "National School of Character" under the 7-year-old award program. Winners receive a $2,000 grant.
Horn directs upperclassmen to welcome freshmen by decorating the school with banners, writing letters and singing. He said he wanted to teach students that "you don't pick on the very youngest, or the newest or the most vulnerable."
Students take field trips to the Hollywood Bowl to practice proper behavior at a classical music concert, such as cleaning up after themselves, singing the national anthem and clapping or remaining silent instead of cheering and dancing as if they were attending a rock concert, Horn said.
They learn civic values by singing patriotic songs and by being hosts to war veterans who visit the school. The school holds monthly assemblies about making good decisions, such as avoiding drugs at parties, being tolerant of different races and playing safely on the Internet.
"Character is our spirit. It's who we are. It's the very core of our being," Horn said. "Now, the current mood of the country is too much about test scores."
Society, he said, is "not concerned enough about, 'Are we graduating good people?' "
Maxine Bush, head of the English department at St. Genevieve, said she incorporates character education into her lessons on the book "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley. The novel gives her students a chance to discuss moral issues such as, "What is life? Who creates it? And who is allowed to manipulate it?" she said.
Bush also assigns students to perform "chivalrous tasks," and then reflect on them in a journal assignment. Students write about holding doors open for people, saying sorry to someone who was hurt, even if by no fault of the writer's, or telling a parent, "I love you."
She wants the students to ask themselves: "How do I fit into the rest of society and the rest of civilization? What am I going to contribute?
"It works really well with literature because those are the great questions that great authors have always asked," she said.
Evegail Andal, 17, a senior at St. Genevieve, said the training has worked. "It's the way we interact with each other -- how we conduct ourselves," she said. "We rarely have fights. There are no labels. We're just basically one family."