Every weekday morning, students in East Valley schools recite the Pledge of Allegiance. That daily repetition of devotion to the United States is not the only time students celebrate their country.
Many schools also host annual patriotic assemblies filled with red, white and blue, and songs praising the nation that bring tears to the eyes of parents who pack cafeterias and auditoriums for the events.
The fervor at which schools and students want to honor their country — and especially those protecting it overseas — has risen since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"This probably was controversial 12 years ago in that people did not want that whole nationalistic conversation," said Kelly Alexander, principal of Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School, an Ahwatukee Foothills area school that has hosted an annual patriotic day in April for 13 years. "Since 9/11, it’s become more vogue to have these kind of activities."
Alexander, like other principals, teachers and parents who host the assemblies for a community eager to thank veterans — regardless of their position on the current war — believes patriotism instills good character in students. At Akimel, students meet real-world heroes in veterans who risked their lives in wars.
"It helps an adolescent with thoughts and ideas of the whole world," said Akimel mom Kathy Serfilippi. "When kids are young, it’s all about their own little world. As they get older, before they’re ready for college, they’re starting to form their own opinions."
Barrie Stachel, whose children attend Scottsdale’s Sequoya Elementary School, said an annual second-grade assembly helps children learn history and also learn their freedoms in the songs they memorize about "the land of the free."
"They know all 50 states," she said. "And they know the presidents in order. I think it’s important for them to feel good about where they live, and appreciate where they live."
The Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union wants to be sure it’s clear to students that their devotion to the nation does not mean they cannot question the government.
Executive director Eleanor Eisenberg said she became concerned when a recent Knight Foundation Future of the First Amendment study found that 49 percent of U.S. high school students, as compared to 30 percent of adults and 20 percent of teachers and principals, thought government should be able to censor the media.
The study found that, while students were more OK with song lyrics that could be considered offensive, 83 percent felt people should be able to express unpopular viewpoints — as compared with nearly 95 percent of all adults, 97 percent of teachers and 99 percent of principals.
"In my mind, being a patriot doesn’t mean following in lock-step or memorizing a song," Eisenberg said. "In fact, I think it’s the highest order of a patriot to want the country to be the best that it can be. Sometimes that means disagreeing with the government or what the (government) is asking you to do. That’s a very important piece that doesn’t always get a lot of attention in school."
In Gilbert, students learn the Constitution in-depth during the town’s annual Constitution Week in September, said co-founder and Gilbert Councilman Dave Petersen.
Students learn about their rights in the classroom, and then attend a fair packed with fireworks and characters dressed as the founding fathers.
Chandler Traditional Academy - Liberty Campus in the Chandler Unified School District is one of several back-to-basic schools that focus on patriotism as a means of character education with red, white and blue school colors and brief weekly assemblies.
Parents are so interested in the format that there is already a waiting list for the district’s second traditional campus, Freedom, set to open next year.
"Some schools are a little leery to become too patriotic. Others are saying, hey let’s get back to what we used to do," Liberty campus principal Don Shelley said. "I think the more they’re taught early about it, the more they’ll make their own decisions."