Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Summerville High School is introducing a new curriculum called "Character Counts" to improve campus climate, and teachers have adopted the cause with energy.

The program focuses on responsible behavior, training teachers first so they can blend discussion of ethics and character with their classroom instruction.

Character education is becoming a major project for the school, which faces allegations by parent Al Dieste that his son was nearly driven to suicide by bullying there.

Summerville Union High School District has committed two years of Character Counts funding - a total of $12,000 - with the possibility of two more years after that.

But next year, Summerville will become what Principal David Johnstone called a regional "hub" for training teachers from other schools in the curriculum. The deal will dramatically lower costs for Summerville's own program.

In Tuolumne County, the curriculum first appeared at Soulsbyville Elementary School, where teachers and staff members say it has been a success.

Character Counts, developed by the nonprofit Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, lays out "Six Pillars of Character": Trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

"The six pillars are pretty universal," said Summerville High special education teacher Deena Koral-Soto, who is helping launch the program there. "It's what you'd want your own children to learn … Every single solitary one of us has work to do on those."

Summerville High will implement Character Counts in full next year. Some teachers have already started incorporating it into their classes.

"I have heard these kids coming out of there talking about things that are right and things that are wrong," said Summerville High grade level coordinator Mitch Heldstab. "Things are coming to the forefront for us to face, so we can deal with issues that are sometimes just hidden."

Several Summerville staff members went to Los Angeles earlier this school year for a three-day Character Counts training session.

They presented the program to other teachers before spring break and got an "overwhelmingly supportive" reception, said athletic director and science teacher Debbie Mager.

After talking with teachers who are enthusiastic about the curriculum, Summerville High student Erica Taylor, 18, incorporated the "Six Pillars of Character" into a campus mural she painted for her senior project.

Johnstone and other Summerville officials said they wouldn't describe existing campus climate as negative. Connections Visual and Performing Arts Academy Principal Diana Harford called it "welcoming and friendly."

District Superintendent John Keiter has disputed Dieste's account of bullying on campus and said the school punishes bullying appropriately, a claim Dieste still contests.

Heldstab pointed out that the Character Counts program will make the school better by sparking discussions about ethics and respect.

"Anytime you have 600 students, there's going to be issues," said Heldstab, who was at first skeptical of Character Counts. "If you put a wide variety of personalities … in an area, you can use this program."

The teachers' training trip to Los Angeles earlier this school year was funded by a $4,650 grant from the Sonora Area Foundation.