When I began my job at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy nearly 10 years ago, I was surprised to learn that as much as my colleagues were interested to work with me on raising student awareness about honesty.
According to one study in James Davison Hunter’s book The Death of Character, between 10 and 20 percent of high school students are willing to cheat on a test or paper.
Even if our students are better than the national average, we still might have students who were not entirely honest. Colleagues were sounding the alarm bell, and because I had just published a book about moral education, they were looking to me to restore trust in our students.
I was invited to join the school’s unique faculty-student Derech Eretz Committee that focused on personal behavior and moral character. I learned about widespread concerns about cheating and plagiarism, about cyber-bullying and students pushing one another in the lunch line.
There were also concerns about students not following the dress code and mistreating the new building.
The Derech Eretz Committee mounted a two-year campaign to establish an honor code at Barrack. We could not find any other Jewish day schools with an honor code, so we looked to independent schools and learned that many don’t require students to report one another for honor code violations.
We also learned about the wide range of values independent school honor councils uphold — from honesty and sportsmanship to inclusion and perseverance.
We changed our name from the Derech Eretz Committee to the Derech Eretz Council, reflecting our status as a school-wide body with elected officers. We selected six values: honor, honesty, humility, modesty, community and fellowship.
Doing the work of both education and adjudication, we led educational programming and convened disciplinary hearings at the request of our school’s administrative leadership team. Barrack students now affirm the school’s values by reciting the pledge each year at a festive ceremonial assembly held on the annual National Character Day.
Lest the pledge begin to feel like a routine matter, student members of the Council in 2017 advocated for a methodical reboot, first giving every student and teacher an opportunity to take the ViaCharacter Survey to discover the values and character strengths held by members of our community. Clear majorities favored the values and character strengths of honor, moral courage, kindness and community.
Those four values guide us in this present school year, and when I walked into a sixth-grade class one day, the students had no difficulty naming most of the four new values.
Through class syllabi, banners in the reception area, art projects, assemblies featuring speakers who embody these strengths and occasional verbal reminders in both good times and, yes, in moments requiring a disciplinary tone, students are being called to act with courage and kindness, to carry themselves and to treat others and their building with honor, and to value the learning community and the nation in which they are privileged to enjoy citizenship.
I realize that our four values cannot be guaranteed to solve every breach or challenge to derech eretz. As advisor to the Derech Eretz Council, I feel privileged to play a role in leading and guiding our school’s moral climate and to partner with our counseling staff and with every teacher so that our students will go off to college and other settings as clear-thinking, emotionally intelligent young people with a firm moral compass.
Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston, Ph.D., is director of Jewish studies and advisor to the Derech Eretz Honor Council at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. This article appears courtesy of the Wexner Foundation.