At St. Leonard Elementary School, students walk quietly in a single file when they navigate the hallways. There is no shouting, pushing or running, and when students see scuff marks on the floor, they are expected to do their part to remove the eyesores.

Each morning, the Calvert County students pledge to be "respectful, responsible and ready to learn." After recess, they congregate in a "friendship circle" to thank each other for good deeds and request apologies for bad deeds.

In short, said Principal Ted Haynie, they're learning about empathy.

Something seems to be making a difference at the 719-student school. In 1997, the school year ended with 160 discipline referrals. That number dropped to 90 at the end of last school year. Yesterday, the school was one of 10 in the country named a National School of Character by the Character Education Partnership, a nonprofit group that tracks programs nationwide. Another area school, Talent House Private School in Fairfax, also was honored.

Respect, responsibility, honesty, fairness and trustworthiness--these are the words that more and more students across the nation are hearing from teachers and principals.

Since two disgruntled students opened fire on their classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado this spring, educators and parents across the country have been searching for ways to make their schools safe, orderly and even pleasant.

Character education, once an experiment, is being touted as the way to do that. The phrase, which few define very specifically--is generally used to describe the teaching of values. Some say it's simply jargon for a superficial program. Others swear by it. Either way, states are institutionalizing such programs, making them integral parts of public school curriculum.

"You can go out and put security devices and armed guards, but that's not a fix. It's a Band-Aid," said Esther F. Schaeffer, executive director of the Character Education Partnership.

This spring, Virginia lawmakers passed legislation requiring all school districts to adopt character education programs. In Fairfax County, 95 percent of the system's 237 schools have some type of character program so far, said Linda Whitfield, the county's administrator for character education.

In 1996, Maryland chose five school districts, including Prince George's and Calvert counties, to serve as models in character education. After studying those school districts, the rest of the 24 districts have jumped on board with some form of character education.

Many principals swear that the program has made a difference in disciplinary referrals, attendance and suspension rates, and in some cases academic achievement. At Broad Run High School in Loudoun County, for example, Principal Ed Markley said attendance went up from 92 percent to 95 percent last year.

Universities and institutes of ethics even have prepackaged programs. Many schools are investing in "Character Counts," developed by the California-based Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics.

But some character education programs fall short. "Simply having children recite a definition of honesty and never returning to that theme during the day is not the way to keep them honest," Schaeffer said.

Alfie Kohn, author of "The Schools Our Children Deserve," said such "Virtue of the Week" activities or reward programs often fail to foster a commitment to the underlying values.

"Everyone is in favor of helping kids become good people," Kohn said. "The problem is that 'character education' has come to be associated with a very questionable set of practices that is more about manipulating kids into acting in a way that is pleasing to adults. Kids are treated often as clay to be molded or pets to be trained or jars to be filled."

That view has not kept schools from trying to turn their students into future good citizens.

At St. Leonard Elementary, Haynie opted for a home-grown program that infuses character education into every part of the school day from kindergarten on up.

"I think schools need to look inward into their school climate," Haynie said. "When do we start educating our kids in emotional intelligence? The character education is always left to chance."

Each morning, the students reflect on life in their "gratitude journals." They collect canned goods for the needy and visit elderly citizens. Each month, different students are designated as character committee members and proudly walk around with the word "responsibility" pinned on their shirts.

"You're going to make sure everybody does the right thing," Allyson Sigler, a guidance counselor at St. Leonard, recently told the second-graders who were serving on the character committee.

"What is responsibility?" Sigler asked. The arms shot up into the air. "When you turn in your homework on time," Katie Kolenda, 7, said.

"When somebody falls down, you pick them up and take them to the nurse," said Tess Beukers, 6, a spunky student who often has to remind herself not to interrupt others when they are speaking.

After lunch, teacher Jennifer Carlucci gathered her students from recess. "I'm looking for people doing the right thing," she told them. The right thing is getting their homework and books out and listening attentively to Carlucci. "I'll wait until I have everyone's attention and everyone is showing respect," she said.

Before starting math instruction, Carlucci assembled the group in a "friendship circle." On a recent day, there was a little bit of tension between two classmates. Jason Funk, 10, said to his classmate: "It makes me feel mad when you trip me in the hallway."

The classmate responded with an apology and offered a handshake. Carlucci smiled to encourage the two boys. No student should be afraid of expressing his or her feelings and doing the right thing, she said.

"It's part of our everyday life here," she said.

CAPTION: St. Leonard Elementary first-grader Anna Gay makes the peace-and-quiet sign as her class lines up after lunch at the school that stresses character.

CAPTION: Third-grader Lauren Watt, right, reads to Andrew MacWilliams and Tyler Grover, bottom left.

CAPTION: Second-graders RaShawn Patterson, left, and Shane Burgess lead the character pledge.

CAPTION: Kindergartner Mandy Adamson, left, reads a note with teacher Kim Dunn, thanking a classmate for sharing.

CAPTION: Second-grader Nathan Blankenship listens during a character committee meeting on responsibility. Each member was given a responsibility pin.