Portland district students may soon have to do more than maintain a B average to be eligible for sports and co-curricular activities. They’d also have to play nice with others.

A policy approved by the school board at its meeting Tuesday would require students to meet so-called “habits of work and learning” standards, or HOWLS, to be eligible. The “soft skills” include being polite, prepared for class and turning in homework on time, and district officials say they are critical to being a well-rounded student and citizen.

Helping students develop basic skills at an early age is being increasingly emphasized around the country, as business leaders and higher education officials say that too many high school students graduate unprepared in workplace basics such as appropriate attire, basic social etiquette or even showing up for work on time.

Maine has long had education behavior standards, along with academic learning standards. But this is the first time the state’s largest school district has tied those standards to eligibility for sports and co-curricular activities, which can include drama clubs, civil rights teams, the student council, yearbook and newspaper clubs and the math team.

While implementation of the policy is still being studied, it may still prove controversial and likely will run into some immediate challenges, not least of which is the fact that a child’s middle school years are a period notorious for highly emotional behavior. Adolescents go thorough perfectly normal but wild mood swings, along with rapid physical and cognitive changes, confront social and emotional pressures, and figure out who they are and how to behave.

At the same time, education research shows that students who participate in sports and co-curricular activities are motivated to do better academically and have lower dropout rates.

“It’s a significant leverage point,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said at the meeting, in support of the policy. The habits of work scores “will actually have some weight, and it will give them the gravitas that they deserve.”

DELAY THE POLICY, BOTANA URGES

The school board initially approved such a policy on Tuesday to take effect at the start of the fall semester, but on Friday the district superintendent said, after receiving calls from the Maine Sunday Telegram about the policy, that schools weren’t yet ready to put the plan into place within the next few weeks. Instead, he will ask the board to reverse the decision and revert to the old eligibility policy for now, to give officials more time to implement the new system.

“We were rushing to check something off the list of policies that needed to be revised … and did not do everything that we needed to do,” Botana said late Friday. “I think we need to go back to the drawing board.”

Botana said he realized soon after Tuesday’s 6-1 vote that there were problems with rolling out the plan within a month of school starting. Botana said he still wants the policy in place eventually, but does not have a timeline.

“I don’t think anybody feels any differently about the intent of the policy. I think it is the right thing to do,” he said. He plans to ask the board to reverse its vote at the August 15 meeting.

Botana noted that the staff had not researched how many students might be affected, and the policy passed by the board wasn’t the one supported by principals – the final version had a tougher scoring standard, he said.

Additionally, not all schools have developed their policies, and the ones that have use different standards and scoring, some using a four-point system and some using a three-point system. The policy passed Tuesday required students to have all “3s” to be eligible – and the school principals had only signed off on requiring “2s.”

Delaying the policy will give the district and board more time to study the idea; review the standards at each school; talk with Portland coaches, parents and students; and make sure any new eligibility policy can apply fairly and equally across all middle and high schools, Botana said.

LACK OF ‘COMMON UNDERSTANDING’

At Tuesday’s meeting, the only board member who voted against the policy was Sarah Thompson, who said she experienced the behavior standards up close as the parent of a Casco Bay High School student. She said students and parents might be surprised at what will happen under the policy.

“We want to encourage students to do well academically and participate in sports,” Thompson said at the board meeting. “I feel like we’re auto-penalizing them without enough info and without enough time. I have to vote against it.”

At Casco Bay, she said, a student can get an automatic “2” for not turning in a single homework assignment on time – and it can’t be made up because the standard is to turn in homework on time. But it wouldn’t be fair if that single instance made a student ineligible for sports or co-curriculars, with no opportunity to improve the score, she said.

“We don’t have a common understanding” of the standards and how to score them, she said. One teacher may have such a homework policy, while another may not.

Botana said Friday that that’s one of the things they will need to work on.

“We need to review (all the schools’ standards), and they need to be on the same scale,” Botana said of the inconsistencies. “We clearly don’t have different expectations for our graduates.”

Sharon Pray, the former chief academic officer who developed the policy, told the board that teachers would be clear to students about what it will take to get a “3” in their class.

“Students will know as they enter a course,” said Pray, who retired last week. “They will be taught those habits of work. We believe we need to model it. We need to measure it.”

“In my opinion, I think it’s easier for teachers to articulate what a scoring (system) will be than for them to subjectively assign an “effort” grade, like in the past,” she added. “I think it’s important for us to talk about habits of work. We want them to be generalized in our world.”

Thompson said she appreciated the idea behind adding habits of work standards to the policy, but she’d like to see it studied for a year before implementing it in all schools.

“I just think it’s too fast too soon,” she said. “My concern is that this is going to creep up on people, and before you know it, they will be ineligible and they won’t even know how they got there.”

Plus, students are already under a lot of pressure to do well academically and to participate in sports and clubs, in some cases to improve their chances of getting into college, and the new policy is “adding another stressor,” Thompson said.

CASCO BAY HIGH HAS SIMILAR RULE

Casco is the only one of the three high schools that already has a habits of work standard in place that requires students to get a “2” to be eligible for sports. District and board officials said they did not research how many students got a “2” or below last year at Casco or the middle schools to see how many students might potentially be affected by the new policy.

Portland High School Principal Sheila Jepson said the intent is not to keep students from participating in sports or co-curriculars. Portland High developed its standards last year and will begin including them on report cards this fall.

“They are pretty clear, very reasonable. They are not things we didn’t expect of students before,” Jepson said. “Being prepared, being on task and focused; those are all things we’ve always expected. And now we’re going to rate them.”

Jepson, who heard the board discussion about the policy, said she appreciated the concerns raised but didn’t think the policy would be a problem.

“You have to trust that in the classroom, the teacher is going to do right by students,” Jepson said.

Board member Marnie Morrione, who chaired the committee that reviewed the policy, said the intent was not to require students to have a “perfect” behavior score. But she agreed there would need to be good communication internally with teachers and with students and parents.

“I think there will be some learning curves along the way,” Morrione said. “It’s not going to be without bumps.”

A review of handbooks at several schools in the district show that, as currently written, habits of work policies are defined differently at each school, and only some are clear about what will trigger certain scores.

At Casco, which emphasizes personal responsibility and experiential learning, the standards say students should “Behave ethically and treat others with respect, persevere when things are hard, seek challenge and solutions.”

MIDDLE SCHOOLS TAKING THE LEAD

At King Middle School, the standards expect students to “communicate politely and kindly,” “work cooperatively with others,” “take care of resources and materials and act as a steward of our community,” “participate fully and mindfully in class,” and “carefully and thoughtfully complete all class assignments to the best of my ability and in a timely manner.”

Lincoln Middle School’s handbook spells out that to earn a “3,” students must meet the standards independently, while students doing them with “reminders” get a “2.” Among the standards are, “I cooperate with others,” and “I am prepared for learning.”

It’s unknown whether any other districts in Maine have adopted similar eligibility rules, but it is likely some will. As the entire state moves toward adopting proficiency-based education, the state Department of Education, in consultation with the Maine Principals’ Association, has provided model language for sports and co-curricular eligibility policies.

In one version, the suggested language said, “The student is demonstrating proficiency on a majority of the habits-of-work standards,” but noted that some districts prefer to base eligibility solely on academic measures.

MPA executive director Dick Durost said an increasing number of schools are using the standards as part of an overall assessment of achievement.

“Habits of work have become an important part of the total assessment process for many schools as they move towards proficiency-based education. It notes the importance of hard work, cooperation and the daily integrity of ‘showing up and doing your job,'” Durost said. “There is both an increased conversation around habits of work and a trend towards including it in the total assessment process.”

Portland school board member Jenna Vendil, who also sits on the committee that developed the policy, said the habits of work standards are important “to prepare our students for the real world.”

“We know that it’s not enough to get really good grades,” Vendil said. “(Students) have to be able to build up the skills needed in adulthood.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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Twitter: noelinmaine

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