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Putnam schools to focus more on life skills

WINFIELD, W.Va. --  A large number of Putnam County high school graduates go on to college -- but nearly two out of three of those don't earn a degree, according to the county's schools superintendent.

"It's something that has bothered me for a while," Chuck Hatfield said. "Our WESTEST and ACT scores are good and all the academic indicators show we're at the top."

That's one reason teachers in Putnam County will begin to emphasize work ethic and communication skills with their students in the fall -- and those qualities will count toward a student's grades.

Hatfield admits some students are lacking important life skills, like how to hold engaging conversations with adults.

"We want kids to know how they're supposed to communicate with each other and adults. If a visitor comes into the school, they should offer assistance and a handshake," he said. "In this day and time kids are losing those skills. When you see kids now they're texting."

Putnam middle-school students will have skills like communication and work ethic count as 10 percent of their grades, according to Hatfield. The same skills will account for 20 percent of high-school students' grades.

The first year of the program will focus on work ethic and communication, but in the future individual schools will be allowed to determine their own needs.

"Hurricane High might realize they have a lot of kids tardy, so they could make punctuality the big issue," he said.

The new plan will in no way overshadow academics, Hatfield said.

"We know how important academics are -- knowledge is power. We think this will enhance academic standards," he said. "If we can teach skills to enhance the opportunity to become a college graduate or be career-ready, we have an obligation to."

A group of about 70 county teachers have been meeting to develop how to teach and implement the program. Hatfield said teachers would not only have to teach the skills, but model them.

"A lot of these things are already in the state policy, but this is a more formal approach.  I don't know any other district in the state doing this county-wide," Hatfield said.

Hatfield will present the county's initiative at the state superintendents conference next week.

 The idea came while county officials were visiting a high-tech school in Columbus, Ind., which the new Buffalo High will be modeled after when it opens in the fall.

"They have school-wide learning outcomes, where things like collaboration, work ethic, technology skills are stressed," Hatfield said. "They teach them daily as part of every class and they're part of a student's grade."

The principal of the Indiana school told Hatfield there wasn't much difference between the high-tech school and other local traditional high schools.

"But when their kids applied for colleges or interviewed for jobs they shined because of the learning outcomes," Hatfield said the principal told him.

The elementary students' version of the learning outcomes program -- "Leader in Me" -- is something Hurricane Town Elementary has already implemented successfully.

"It's really neat to see a kindergarten kid give a firm handshake and welcome you to the building," Hatfield said.

Five more elementary schools will adopt the program based on Stephen Covey's best-selling book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" in the fall, and the rest will be following in coming years.

The implementation of learning outcomes will show education can go beyond textbooks and test scores, Hatfield said.

"A student may have a B, but work really hard ... and end up with an A after work ethic is factored in. If someone is really trying they should be rewarded," he said. "You can't just focus on a set of test scores all the time. We have to meet needs. There are smart kids who don't do well on tests."

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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