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Soft skills

Posted: October 17, 2014 10:58 a.m.
Updated: October 20, 2014 1:00 a.m.

In early September, I attended a meeting of superintendents in Greenville. A major area of discussion was the development of a workforce that would attract sustainable industry to South Carolina and how K-12 education fits into this puzzle. To underscore this discussion, the meeting included a tour of the BMW plant in Spartanburg. Wow! This facility absolutely reflects what a 21st century workplace looks like and what many of our students will need to be prepared to enter. I talk a lot about preparing students for their future and not our past. The BMW tour reminded me why this is so important.

 One of the interesting points I heard at this conference is that the business community in our state is going to make a major push for public schools to put more emphasis on developing “soft skills” such as integrity, self-direction, perseverance, work ethic, punctuality, collaboration and interpersonal skills. There is a strong sentiment in the business community that students are graduating from high school without these skills.

Obviously, soft skills don’t show up on a transcript. However, the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee (EOC) is studying how soft skills might ultimately be measured for the State Report Card. I certainly believe that one of our jobs is to help students to develop non-academic skills. However, I wonder how these skills can be accurately measured. I know good soft skills when I see them, but trying to put a numerical weight to them seems like a stretch.

I do believe that as all this unfolds, the state will require school districts to develop plans for the development of soft skills. I’m very pleased that soft skills are already a significant priority in Kershaw County. I believe that over the past several years particularly, our district has been extremely proactive in making sure that students are given opportunities to grow in this area.

One major strategy that has been implemented district-wide is PBIS or “Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.” We got into PBIS several years ago at the elementary level through the Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant. We expanded to the middle school two years ago because our suspension rate was too high and because students were coming out of elementary school accustomed to PBIS. (Let me emphasize that I am not saying that suspension isn’t necessary or appropriate at times. But there is no research indicating that suspension improves student behavior.)

The key question we asked ourselves was how can we prevent discipline and other problems versus reacting to them after they occur? Traditional school discipline has focused on reacting to student misbehavior through some kind of punishment structure. PBIS attempts to teach, model and reinforce positive behavior and rewards students for appropriate behavior versus just reacting to inappropriate behavior. Each of our schools develops its own approach within the parameters of the PBIS structure.

 At Stover Middle, for example, the program revolves around “PROWL,” or Positive, Responsible, Organized, Wise, and Life-Long Learner. (The PROWL acronym is pretty catchy given that the school nickname is Tigers.) Recognitions and rewards for students are based on these areas. This is just one example. Every school involved in PBIS does something unique that get students engaged in working on soft skills. Since PBIS has been implemented, there has been a significant decrease in suspensions across the district. As I often say to my colleagues, students who are at school do tend to learn more.

There are numerous other examples of how our schools emphasize soft skills. Jackson School is in its third year of The Leader in Me program, based on Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This program is worth a column by itself. It has had a huge measurable impact on student success at Jackson. Other programs include the Advisor-Advisee program at Lugoff-Elgin High and North Central High, the High School 101 class at Camden High and the character education programs that occur in every one of our schools. “Safe Schools Ambassadors” in our elementary and middle schools, a program that focuses on bullying prevention, is a major initiative. The active emphasis all of our schools place on giving back to the community is another important part of our district’s approach to soft skills.

I could go on and on. Our approach with soft skills has been and continues to be to support and reinforce what our students learn at home, at church and in other activities outside of school. We’re all in this together!

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is frank.morgan@kcsdschools.net. Citizens can contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district Website. I also invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at on our award-winning website, www.kershaw.k12.sc.us.

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