Misbehaving students turn themselves around by paddling rowboat

Katie Cormier (from nearest to farthest), Savannah Tinker, Taylor Karl, Nick Cormier, Roger Cunningham and Adrian Thompson are all teenagers in the Station Maine program at Rockland District Middle School. The students, seen here in March, row each week as part of their school curriculum.
Katie Cormier (from nearest to farthest), Savannah Tinker, Taylor Karl, Nick Cormier, Roger Cunningham and Adrian Thompson are all teenagers in the Station Maine program at Rockland District Middle School. The students, seen here in March, row each week as part of their school curriculum.
Posted June 25, 2011, at 12:58 p.m.
Last modified June 25, 2011, at 1:32 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Sticking the worst-behaved eighth-graders in a rowboat for an hour a day? The teachers, principal and students at Rockland District Middle School were all pretty sure that the concept would work. Once the program started, they also were pretty sure that the participating students were doing better in school, paying attention, feeling confident and fit, and that they weren’t sitting in the principal’s office as frequently.

Now they know for sure.

The rowing instructor, the principal and a teacher presented their data from the first year of the program on Thursday night to the Regional School District 13 Curriculum Committee. The program, which started last September, involved selecting 35 students who were in danger of dropping out of high school and asking them to skip social studies class once a week to row in a boat around Rockland Harbor. The participating students later made up the social studies work.

At the beginning, administrators measured all the students’ math and English scores using a special point scale. By the end of the program, the combined score for all the students went up more than 22 points. Three points equals one grade level.

There were two students who dragged the overall score down. Both students’ scores dropped by more than 10 points each. Those two children had extenuating circumstances, including a death in the family, affect their efforts, and both dropped out of the program halfway into it.

“Some of the circumstances were out of our control,” Rockland District Middle School Principal Kathy Hollicker said at the Thursday night meeting.

On the other end of the spectrum, one boy increased by 31 points — more than 10 grade levels. He was behind his grade level before the program; now he needs advanced courses.

There were several stories like this shared at the Thursday night meeting.

The report cards for the students in the program “very much improved,” Hollicker said.

Perhaps the biggest noticeable change was that none of the students who stayed in the program failed. Before the program, they were failing. These students were targeted as students most likely to drop out of high school.

“These were the pugnacious kids most teachers didn’t want in their class because of their behavior. I got them in one boat. And they rocked,” said Muriel Curtis, who runs the free rowing program Station Maine on Mechanic Street in Rockland.

One student had already been in jail. By the end of the year, he made the honor roll. When he was on the bus to go on the honor roll field trip, he turned to his eighth-grade teacher and said, “I can’t believe I’m here.”

“He is now a mentor to other kids,” principal Hollicker said. “This program went way beyond academics. It transformed some of these kids and kept them from the juvenile [corrections] system. There is a direct connection to this and I think it’s a much better use of taxpayer money.”

In addition to grades going up, the discipline problems dropped.

“The referrals [to the principal’s office] dropped by a quarter in this group,” Hollicker said. “They used to have no control over their behavior and they had a venomous hatred of school. But these kids changed.”

When they did end up in front of the principal, the interactions were more positive. They didn’t “fly off the handle” as much, according to Hollicker.

Even the relationship with the parents improved. There were fewer parent-to-principal interactions, largely because the students behaved better. When the parents did talk to the principal, it was in a different tone.

“The interactions we did have [last year] were all negative. The parents never came in, they called. And they were as volatile at the kids. [This year] they said for the first time their kids were happy,” Hollicker said.

Of the 35 students selected for rowing, 32 had never been in an extracurricular activity, like soccer or band, according to Curtis. Through the program, these students earned self-confidence and learned about teamwork, as is evidenced by student testimonies the teachers collected.

“Going to Station Maine, I had no idea it would change me completely. I have become more outgoing and more self-confident. It helped me make new friends and to be more physically fit,” one girl wrote. “Before, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished high school. Now, I have a better idea.”

Another girl wrote, “Lifting the oars was kind of hard … but once I got it, it made me feel like I could actually do something.”

“Rowing is good for practicing listening skills, communication and cooperation,” a boy wrote.

Several students wrote that they realized they are stronger than they thought.

The grades and the self-confidence are directly tied, according to the program leaders.

“One little boy whose grades went up: Every time he pulled an oar he’d say, ‘I’m so stupid.’ From Day One his parents told him he was dumb and useless and couldn’t do it. Turns out, he’s not stupid. He’s just been told from Day One he’s worthless and can’t do it. That changed this year,” Curtis said.

The reason rowing is effective at this, according to Curtis, is because “literally failure was not an option. If you don’t pull on the oar, you don’t go home.”

Thus, everyone felt success. Each teenager was good at something. Curtis also demanded each student, at one point in the program, take the lead and yell commands to the rowers.

“It takes courage,” Curtis said.

The middle school plans to continue the program next year. Because of a change-up in how this district’s schools will work, the program will be for seventh-graders instead of eighth-graders. Because the program was so successful, it also will be extended to all students in the seventh grade.

“This year we targeted a group of students to get to them before high school, before they dropped out. Next year, we’re not going to target. We want everyone to experience it,” Hollicker said Thursday.

The program is free because it is run through the nonprofit Station Maine, which allows anyone to row a six-oared 32-foot Cornish Pilot Gig at no cost. The only cost the school absorbs is busing the students a half-mile to the ocean.

“You allowed these children to blossom this year,” eighth-grade teacher Melanie Slocum said to the curriculum committee on Thursday night. “We didn’t have success 100 percent of the time, but we had an impact on these children.”

The committee seemed pleased.

“Middle school is where you have to grab them. We need to load middle schools with these programs, art and music,” said curriculum committee member George Emery.

For information, visit stationmaine.org.

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