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Great schools strive to develop character

I can remember with perfect clarity escorting my beautiful daughter to her first day of preschool at Elmwood Franklin School. Despite warnings we were given of possible separation issues, Colleen quickly found a friend and some things to play with. The days went by seemingly uneventfully.

Like any new parent, I was anxious to hear how my child was faring in school. At the November teacher conference, I asked how Colleen was doing. The teacher thought for a moment, then quietly exchanged a few words with a colleague. Finally she stated, "Colleen is a solid citizen."

This was not exactly what I was expecting. Of course, I wanted to hear that my child was some kind of prodigy who was at that moment reading "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse" aloud to the first-graders. "Solid citizen?" However, since the alternative seemed to be that she was some sort of criminal, I accepted the teacher's assessment with no sign of disappointment.

Time marches on. My wife and I spent quite a bit of time over the last year considering high schools for our daughter. All of the schools dump a lot of data on the parents. There are average SAT scores, ACT scores, Regents, number of AP courses, student/teacher ratios, number and quality of clubs and teacher credentials. Schools proudly display their college acceptances and scholarships. Everyone looks to see who has the most Ivy Leaguers.

As I reviewed all of this data, I found something profoundly missing. The measure of a person and a successful life is not in the school she attended or the job she has. Where is the list of schools that produce devoted parents, loyal friends, caring bosses and honest employees? We were searching for the school whose graduates become grandparents who hold hands, volunteer at the local hospital and still make snow angels with their grandchildren.

At the time we began our high school search, this country was in the throes of a deep recession. The causes can be debated. However, many people with impressive credentials and lots of initials after their names seemed to lack basic good character. Some of them ended up in prison. Did these people miss something in school? Or perhaps their school missed an opportunity in them.

Over the years, I have come to learn something about what makes a successful school. I went from wondering why we were paying so much money for Colleen to play around in preschool to not understanding her algebra. Somewhere along the way, the Three R's got covered quite well. However, what I think has been most important is the character development. Some schools understand that education should be putting young men and women on their way not just toward a high-paying job, but toward a purpose-driven life.

We decided to empower our daughter with the decision of choosing her high school, but maintained some control by limiting it to any girls Catholic school. So we visited a few open houses and let her pick the ones she wanted to "shadow." Shadowing is the true litmus test, because it allows prospective students and families to see beyond the stats and into the real heart of things. In the end, as we've learned, it all comes down to values.

Someday, when these precious children of ours breathe their last, prayerfully many decades from now, may the sagacious words of Colleen's preschool teacher be said of them. And may they leave many more "solid citizens" behind in the lives they touched.


David Frank lives in Getzville. His daughter is a freshman at the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart.