Back in 2004, when I wrote my book, Cowboy Ethics, translating the Code of the West into “Ten Principles to Live By,” it was with Wall Street and unfolding corporate scandals in mind. But once I started speaking on this theme to industry and investor groups, it became obvious that my message, “everyone needs a code…a creed to live by,” resonated with a much broader audience. The feedback I got was particularly emphatic on one point: “Young people really need to hear this. I wish you would take Cowboy Ethics into our schools.”

Frankly, I was ambivalent — even skeptical — about the idea, even though it’s clear that reaching young people is the surest way to change our society for the better. After all, they will soon be the ones in charge. Today’s students are tomorrow’s doers, leaders, and role models. And it did seem to me that a variety of forces, from the hectic pace of life for two-income families to the Supreme Court decision taking religion out of public schools, had combined to leave a major void in the moral and ethical upbringing of many of our young people.

I also knew that parents and school authorities had increasingly pushed for character education in public schools across the country, with at least 30 states mandating some form of program. Migrating Cowboy Ethics into an educational setting did seem like a natural for the nonprofit foundation I’d created, the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership.

At the same time, I hadn’t seen much evidence that character education programs were more than marginally effective, despite all the millions already spent out of tight school budgets.

As the father of two myself, I could see why such programs might not work despite all good intentions. Lecturing teenagers about “doing the right thing” could quickly become an exercise in futility. Then there were daunting logistical and organizational barriers. Difficult as it was for seasoned educators to navigate the maze of the vast educational bureaucracy, to an outsider like myself it seemed virtually impossible.

Then one day in 2008, I got a phone call that changed my mind and the course of my social ventures. Ann Moore, an extraordinary teacher at Cherry Creek High in Denver consistently ranked the number-one public high school in Colorado — called seeking permission to use my book’s “Ten Principles To Live By” in her classes for at-risk juniors and seniors (meaning students at risk of not graduating), many of whom had learning differences, behavioral issues, or both.

I told Ann of my trepidations about bringing the Code of the West into the classroom, but she persevered. Her enthusiasm and can-do spirit persuaded me to collaborate with her in developing a pilot program for high school students.

With permission from the school principal, Ann translated my Cowboy Ethics book into a four-week teaching unit and began testing the curriculum with her classes of at-risk students — the hardest kids to reach.

The results, as expressed by the students themselves, surpassed all my expectations. Those who scratched their heads in puzzlement on the first day of the class (“Uh… cowboys? Ethics… ?”) were soon engaged in pondering, discussing and writing about the values they want to embrace as a framework for their adult lives. Four of the students in one of Ann’s classes went on to audition for and win coveted speaking slots at Cherry Creek’s graduation — the very first time that students other than top scholars and star athletes had been invited to speak at commencement ceremonies.

To learn more about Finding the Hero Within, and to start a program in your school, click here.