Without discussion, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday approved expanding a Baton Rouge-based character education program this fall from two to 15 schools.

New Superintendent Warren Drake has pressed the board to adopt Manners of the Heart, a program he used early on in his tenure as Zachary schools superintendent and for which he remains a supporter, and said he is considering whether to eventually expand it district­wide.

After the meeting, though, board member Barbara Freiberg said she plans to talk to Drake about monitoring the effect of Manners of the Heart this coming school year, both academically and on student behavior.

Drake said he’s agreeable to that.

“I want to do that, too. I think it’s going to help our kids get better in a lot of ways,” he said. “You have to set a foundation of character early.”

The total cost to offer Manners of the Heart next year at the 15 schools is $522,000. Private donations from the Boo Grigsby and Charles Lamar Family foundations of $50,000 and $30,000, respectively, are offsetting some of the cost.

Of the $442,000 public portion, $9,277 apiece is coming from the budgets of each of the 15 schools. The remainder, $302,845, is coming out of the school system’s general operating fund.

Buchanan and LaBelle Aire were using the program last year. They are now being joined by Claiborne, Glen Oaks Park, Howell Park, Melrose, Merrydale, Park, Park Forest, Shenandoah, University Terrace, Villa del Rey, Westminster, White Hills and Winbourne elementary schools.

Drake said he’s starting with the schools that have expressed interest in the program.

Jill Rigby Garner, founder and executive director of Manners of the Heart, likes to describe the program not as character education but as “respect-based heart education.”

“We unlock the heart to open up the mind,” she said.

Garner said that in expanding the program, Manners of the Heart is changing its approach. Rather than have weekly classes, the organization is training teachers and counselors at the 15 schools in late August so they can integrate Manners of the Heart lessons throughout the school year.

Manners of the Heart commissioned an outside evaluation that was completed in December by Monique LeBlanc, a professor of psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.

Using surveys and standardized test scores, LeBlanc compared Claiborne and Polk elementary schools in Baton Rouge, both of which adopted Manners of the Heart in 2013-14, with Howell Park and Merrydale elementary schools, which did not use the program. The evaluation found evidence of increased student achievement, but more mixed results in terms of student behavior, though with clear improvement in certain areas.

After perusing a short version of the evaluation the organization has posted online, Noel Hammatt, an education researcher who spent several years at LSU’s College of Education, said what he read is “false and is, in fact, deceitful.” Hammatt said he defers to Drake’s personal knowledge, but better information on the program’s effectiveness is needed.

“I respect (Drake’s) judgment, but what we have been provided as the general public does not suggest that this program is worth the expense,” he said.

Hammatt particularly objected to passages where LeBlanc implies Manners of the Heart caused the academic gains at Claiborne and Polk — 28 percent in their school performance scores — and conversely the absence of the program caused the declines at Howell Park and Merrydale — 26 percent decline in school performance scores.

Garner provided The Advocate with a copy of the complete evaluation. That 37-page document includes lots of evidence of correlation — Manners of the Heart was implemented the same year school performance scores greatly improved at Claiborne and Polk — but makes no attempt to isolate the extent to which the program may have caused that academic improvement.

After the meeting, Garner said improvement in academic results at those two schools, coupled with the evidence of improvement in student discipline and teachers’ very positive views of the program, point to Manners of the Heart as the reason for the academic improvements at Claiborne and Polk.

Garner also pointed to numbers generated in the 2014-15 school year by Bethel Lower Elementary School in Shawnee, Oklahoma. That school found that its referrals for student discipline dropped in half, fewer students were held back and substantially more students were reading on grade level that year compared with the year before.

But as with Claiborne and Polk, Garner provided no evidence that Manners of the Heart was the causal factor in the improvements at Bethel Lower.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.