A Baton Rouge-based character education program got a boost Thursday as the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board recommended expanding it from two to 15 schools this fall.

The expansion would cost about $500,000 a year, of which about $300,000 would be paid for by the school system.

The initiative has the support of new Superintendent Warren Drake, who used the program early in his tenure in Zachary and remains a supporter.

“I saw what a difference it made in how the students interacted with each other,” Drake said.

The board is set to give final approval to the expansion when it holds its regular meeting July 16.

Buchanan and LaBelle Aire were using the program last year. If approved, they would be 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 looking at potentially expanding it in 2016-17 to all the school district’s elementary schools.

Board members gave the program mostly a warm reception Thursday, and all board members present voted in favor of it. School Board member Tarvald Smith arrived after the vote, and board member Jill Dyason was absent.

Jill Rigby Garner, executive director of Manners of the Heart, described 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 Manners of the Heart, which she founded in the late 1990s, has been used in more than 800 schools and is now active in about 500 schools.

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

Using surveys and standardized test scores, LeBlanc compared two unnamed Baton Rouge schools that adopted Manners of the Heart with two unnamed schools that didn’t. LeBlanc found evidence of increased student achievement but more mixed results in terms of student behavior, though with clear improvement in certain areas.

Garner said 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.

“Every adult in the building will get trained,” Garner said.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.