Do unto others

Ethics-based charter school teaches Golden Rule

In a county where people sometimes believe ethics – political and otherwise – are compromised, one school is teaching students to do the right thing as part of its curriculum.
Jersey City’s Ethical Community Charter School serves students in kindergarten through third grade. However, the school doesn’t use political examples or examples from history, instead encouraging community service and engaging in conflict resolution.
On a recent tour of the school’s Marion-area campus near Journal Square, a box of food donations for a local community service organization sat in a second floor hallway. Many people donate food, money, or time to local charities during the holiday season – only to stop these efforts after the New Year. But the school community makes it part of their mission.
Last month students collected items for hygiene kits for victims the January 2010 earthquake in Léogâne, Haiti. And last year, students at the school helped to raise $200,000 for families in Japan, the site of another devastating earthquake.

‘It just seemed to be the right fit for our family and our lifestyle and what we wanted for our son’s education.’ – Jennifer Reece
“Part of our learning here is inquiry-based. So, I asked the students, ‘What is a food drive? Why do some people need food?’ Rather than giving them a speech about the food drive, we had a conversation about it so the children came up with the answers themselves,” said principal Marta Bergamini last week.
All charter schools in the state – which are usually founded by parents and educators – have to identify a mission. Some have an environmental focus, while others try to foster entrepreneurship in their students. In the case of Ethical Community Charter School, “ethics, service, and social justice are the principles that inform every aspect of school life,” said Bergamini.
The ongoing charity drives are just one way the school tries to live up to its mission.
Conflict resolution through discussion is another of the school’s trademarks, said Bergamini.
“Whenever we have conflict, we have a discussion, regardless of what subject you’re in,” she said. “We go over what happened. How did the other person feel? It’s about teaching both parties respect for each other.”
She added that developing a language for conflict resolution is particularly important for a generation of kids who may be more accustomed to communicating through technology than verbal conversation.

Ends each day with ‘closing circle’

The school also borrows heavily from the “responsive classroom” philosophy developed by the Quaker Friends’ school tradition. Each school day at Ethical Community begins with a school-wide town meeting and ends with a reflective “closing circle” in each classroom.
During the daily 10-minute closing circle teachers ask students such questions as, “What was a challenge you faced today?” “How did you meet that challenge?” “What was something you were proud of?” and “How were you kind and respectful of someone today?”
“It’s a good way to end the day on a nice, positive note,” said teacher Jamie Demico.
While this may seem too “touchy feely” for some parents, others clearly welcome this approach to education.
“It just seemed to be the right fit for our family and our lifestyle and what we wanted for our son’s education,” said Jennifer Reese, the mother of an Ethical Community second grader. Next year, her younger child will begin kindergarten at the school. “This is our third year here. We’re happy.”
The school, which opened three years ago and currently goes from kindergarten through the third grade, offers ethics classes to its students as a part of the regular curriculum alongside English, math, science, social studies, art, and music. Second and third graders take ethics classes twice a week, while kindergarteners take these classes once a week.
The ethics curriculum, taught by Geoff Renaud, uses role-playing and examples from literature to generate discussion of ethical behavior. Much of what is taught in these classes centers on the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
“In a recent conversation I had with students, I told them, ‘You don’t have to be everybody’s best friend,’ ” said Bergamini. “We have differences. But we can be together in this community at school, and outside of school, if we respect each other. So, we have those kinds of conversations throughout the day.”
Students at the school seem confident expressing their opinions, even in conversations with adults.
One third grader, Alex Choudhury, said he plans to run for student body president. The issues he wants to address if elected?
“We need hall monitors and bathroom monitors,” Choudhury said. “Sometimes the bathroom is very dirty and it gets gross.”
He added that he likes the filtered drinking water coolers and decorative posters hung throughout the school.

Many ‘misconceptions’

“There are a lot of misconceptions about charter schools,” said Bergamini. “When I go to meetings with other educators, they say, ‘Well, you get to pick who goes to your school.’ Or, people think we don’t have to have certified teachers. No. We’re a public school…We teach the New Jersey state core curriculum and we build upon it.”
All kindergarten and first grade classrooms have a state certified teacher and a teacher assistant. Second grade classes have a certified teacher and the part-time help of a teaching assistant. Third grade classes have a certified teacher and rely on a “floating” teaching assistant who helps out in several classrooms, Bergamini said.
All classes are capped at 20 students.
Ideally, Bergamini added, each classroom would have full-time teaching assistant. But due to a lack of available funding, the school must make the most use of its limited teaching assistant staff. (Charter schools are funded largely through local school boards, but don’t receive all the funding that regular public schools receive. They are forced to make up the difference through donations. Bergamini said the school relies on grant money and parent donations to help cover the costs and such “extras” as field trips.)
To attend the school, Bergamini said parents must submit an application by Jan. 10 for the upcoming school year. The school then holds a public lottery to draw names for each grade. Although preference is given to Jersey City residents and the siblings of current students, no other preferences are given to applicants.
Based on the results of the lottery, applicants are either admitted or put on a waiting list.
Interestingly, most of the school’s 200 students are currently boys. Bergamini said 59 of the students currently qualify for free or reduced lunch.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at

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