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Deborah Hearn Smith: It’s time to return character to classrooms

August 24, 2018

HearnThis week, I sent my youngest grandchild back to school. He is entering the third grade. This is the grade the research says is the predictor of his destiny for prison or success. I look at his eyes and see the joy and excitement he has for reconnecting with friends and his beloved teacher and for all the adventures ahead.

But somewhere deep in my core, I feel fear. Will this be the year his dreams are shattered? Will some well-meaning adult with data tell him the odds are stacked against him? Will his school remember he is a whole person?

This is the year of the reading assessment. I value reading above all academics because it is the gateway to learning. I totally support an assessment to gauge the progress of a child. However, what about the whole child? What about his spirit and body?

With our young people killing one another in the streets and in the classroom, is it time to look at character. Somehow, when we took religion out of the school, we took out values that are the bedrock of all faith traditions and the foundation of American democracy. We must return to the core values we can agree on, such as kindness, human dignity, respect, sharing, patriotism, respect for the land and truth.

If we are to thrive in the democratic society, we must have a set of core values that go beyond that which divides us. It is great that Johnny can read, but does Johnny care for and respect himself and others?

I hear all the arguments that values are learned at home and should not be part of the academic world. At the same time, the school day and year have been extended. This means our children are spending more hours and days under influences outside the home.

I am not advocating for school to replace the home and family. I hold the family in high esteem and, contrary to what you hear, the thousands of families I have been privileged to know are doing a great job. I am advocating for the whole child. When the spirit is not nourished, the capacity of the child to have compassion is diminished. What is left is an adult who does not value himself or his fellow man.

What about the third part of a child: his body? At the very time his body is going through unprecedented change on a daily basis, the message is: Sit still. Then we spend the entire adult life trying to recapture the importance of good health and exercise. The physical health of our children cannot be sacrificed.

Many of life’s most valuable lessons are learned on the playground. Winning and losing with equal grace is best learned in play with peers. I watched this happen over the summer as the children on my block interacted through play. They have no idea or care that they were exercising for hours, but their bodies grew and developed in the most natural way. Now they have returned to school with limited recess and soon it will be dark when they return home. I worry about their physical development.

Back to my grandson. When the school year ends, I pray I will still have a little one excited about life and his dreams, that he has not been crushed by some adult data that labels him. I want his school to know: I expect his mind, spirit and body to be nourished and respected. Nothing less is acceptable.•

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Smith is former CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana. Send comments toibjedit@ibj.com.

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