THE FIRST installment of a recently aired Public Broadcasting Service series on violence in America showed Bill Moyers interviewing teen-agers. In general, the teens were articulate, appealing, well-groomed. Most were incarcerated for murder.
In the interviews, some version of the word "care" was mentioned by most of the youths: "My parents never cared anything about me." "The only time I ever felt cared for was when I was in the gangs." "In school, they never even cared if I was there." "If only someone had just cared."
Experts now tell us that, in many respects, caring is at the core of a civilized society. Research seems to show that the ability to care, perhaps more than anything else, can influence and modify human behavior. In short, raising caring children is the best protection we have, the best investment we can make. The Community of Caring is the practical application of that conviction. Built first on the value of caring, it provides a structure in which this value and those of trust, respect, responsibility and the importance of family are learned and practiced.
The Community of Caring, like all Kennedy Foundation programs, has its roots in concern for the mentally retarded. Studies have shown that mental retardation is more likely to occur in babies of teen-age mothers. Also, of all Aid to Families with Dependent Children recipients, teen-age mothers are the most likely to be come long-term welfare dependents. These are some of the key reasons why the foundation decided to tackle the problem of teen-age pregnancy. To address the crisis, the foundation established the first Communities of Caring. The program proved so successful in preventing repeat pregnancies that a similar program was launched in some U.S. public schools to help prevent pregnancies and other destructive behaviors of teen-agers. There are now 160 Community of Caring schools operating in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
Here are some key components of Community of Caring Schools:
* Teach values across the curriculum
In Community of Caring schools, the five core "values" -- caring, respect, responsibility, trust and the importance of family -- are thoroughly integrated into a school's curriculum. Working together, teachers and students discover that those fundamental values are part of everything they learn and, in fact, everything they do.
* Sponsor teen forums
Using the five core values as the foundation, students are given opportunities through forums to tackle, reflect upon and attempt to resolve, some of the most serious issues they face: violence, drug and alcohol abuse, dropping out of school and pregnancy. The forums give them the chance to share their views, see that they are not alone and gain reinforcement for wise choices.
* Teacher training
One of the program's key components (and most popular) is training. School personnel, parents and community leaders are shown how best to teach and model the five values. Though much of the program is what good teachers have tried to do for years, teachers say that it confers the additional benefit of "giving us permission to do these things within an academic setting" and "supports us in all the best things we do."
* Community service and service learning
Another of the program's essential components is community service, which some of our schools call "service learning." The service may be done in or out of school and is designed to show, in the most concrete way possible, how service to others when carefully planned and reflected upon, both exemplifies and reinforces the five core values.
* Family involvement
Parents truly are their children's first and most important teachers, particularly where values are concerned. The structure the Community of Caring encourages parents to participate in every step of the program's initial development and supports schools in their efforts to keep parents involved throughout the school years. Parents seem to understand and appreciate that the program is not about challenging their values, but about reinforcing them on a daily basis.
The basic elements of the Community of Caring program provide a structure critical to its success. Calling for the institution of values in young people with no more than impassioned speeches does nothing. Writing artful treatises on values has limited effect. Building a structure that enables values to be demonstrated, allows them to be experienced, to be shared and to be internalized -- that's what's needed and that's what the Community of Caring does.
The program works. Independently compiled statistics show that Community of Caring schools, teen-age pregnancy has been dramatically reduced, drug and alcohol abuse is on the decline, student attendance and grade-point averages are up. For example, from Armstrong High School in inner-city Richmond, Va., the principal wrote, "After six years of being a Community of Caring school, the teen pregnancy rate has been reduced by over 60 percent, the dropout rate has gone down and, most importantly, Armstrong has had the fewest number of student referrals for violations of the Student Standards of Conduct for each of the last five years."
At the end of the PBS program on violence, Bill Moyers again spoke with some of the most serious young offenders. This particular group had participated in an intensive program of psychological and other interventions intended to alter their violent behavior. Mr. Moyers asked the young people if they felt they had changed. The depth of feeling in their responses strongly suggested that they had. The last question Mr. Moyers asked them was, "Then, what is different about you now that was not there before?" Unhesitatingly, one of the young women responded, "Most of us have learned to care."
Eunice Kennedy Shriver is president of the Community of Caring.