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New course teaches students 'life skills'


CLEAR SPRING -- Jonny Barr and hundreds of other sophomores in Washington County have spent a regular part of their school year learning how to balance checkbooks, write resumes, shop for auto insurance and even how to be parents -- skills they'll need for life after high school.

Some knowledge of guns and safety around water also are among the topics being taught Jonny, 16, and his classmates.

It's part of a comprehensive, yearlong course about health and life skills that Washington County educators initiated this year. The class -- taught to some 1,500 sophomores at seven high schools -- was made a graduation requirement.

"There was a real need for students to experience these kinds of things," said Eugene "Yogi" Martin, the county's supervisor of physical education, health, life skills and athletics.

While health education is a state requirement and many school districts teach many of the same life skills in home economics and business courses, Washington County is believed to be the first in Maryland to require such tasks be taught to all students.

The inclusion of fire, gun, water and boat safety instruction -- taught by Hagerstown firefighters and state Natural Resources Police officers -- is particularly unusual, state educators said.

"It's an excellent course," said Margaret Trader, assistant state superintendent for instruction and staff development. "I'm not aware of anyone else doing something similar."

Gun safety -- learning the components of a gun and how to act responsibly -- was added as county educators worked with law enforcement officials on other elements, Mr. Martin said.

Guns are more typically associated with hunting in this mountainous part of Maryland than with street violence found in Baltimore and Washington and other cities. Hunting skills, though, are not taught.

"If you look at the whole situation with guns and gun safety . . . it's not guns that harm people, but people who harm people by using a weapon," Mr. Martin said. "Anything we can do to educate our youth regarding guns is a tremendous asset."

John Peckyno, principal at Clear Spring High School, called the life skills course "very critical" for students, many of whom come from families in which both parents work and are busy with

sports and other activities, leaving little time for discussion of many issues.

Dave Morris, a health and life skills instructor at the school, agreed: "Mom and dad are still good role models, but a lot of kids . . . need some guidelines. A lot of this stuff should be taught at home, but this is the '90s, and it has to be taught in school. It's worthwhile."

Washington educators said support for the course has been widespread with no parental complaints registered.

Students have been receptive.

"I thought it would be kind of stupid, like our community service requirements," said Juli Rosenberry, a 15-year-old from Clear Spring. "It was something that didn't make sense to me. But I think it's worthwhile."

Like Juli, Jonny and classmate Ami Itnyre, a 15-year-old from Hagerstown, admit to learning in the class. Although textbooks are used, much classroom time is focused on discussions, sometimes after having watched videos of television programs dealing with relevant issues, such as peer pressure to smoke, drink or have sex.

As a result, improving communication skills -- another component of the class, along with environmental education and awareness of heredity, culture and personal growth -- has been important.

"I've learned how to get along better with people -- even with people I don't like," Jonny said. "You don't have to treat them bad -- you can work things out."

Mr. Martin said educators spent four years developing the curriculum. Since its classroom debut in September, other school districts have inquired about Washington's efforts, he said.

Eliminating the life skills course in the county -- along with a half-credit of gym -- has been bandied about as a cost-cutting measure during budget deliberations going on now. The 19,000-student district is about $600,000 shy of meeting its proposed $94.1 million budget for next school year.

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