Personalized Approach: ALE program helps students find success

Tuesday, January 16, 2018
ALE instructor Traci Morrell works with small groups of K-2 students, keeping them on task by rotating between short intervals of reading and math.
Photo by Tavi Ellis/Carroll County News

Many elementary students are not familiar with the school setting, which can lead to behavior issues that affect their learning.

Alternative Learning Environment (ALE) instructor Traci Morrell said this is one of the problems the ALE program tries to address at Berryville Elementary School.

“Usually, at this level students are in ALE because of behavior,” she said, “and a lot of that is because they just haven’t been exposed to the school setting. Once we get them exposed to the school setting, I think that helps transition them out of the program.”

The elementary school began offering the ALE program about three years ago, Morrell said, and she currently has 10 students. She said these students spend about 60 percent of their school day in the Bobcat Den, the ALE classroom that is removed from the main building.

The ALE program is often misunderstood, she said, and seen as a negative consequence for students who aren’t performing well in the classroom.

“ALE is for kids who are not finding success in their regular classroom,” Morrell said. “So this is a separate program where we help them fill in those gaps.”

She continued, “It’s a non-punitive program that Berryville offers all the way through our high school. Some people look at it as if we’re rewarding bad behavior, but we’re not. We’re changing behaviors to help students succeed.”

Teachers usually refer students to the ALE program, she said. ALE may be recommended for students because they have behavior problems, have hardships at home or just learn a little bit differently.

“Generally, they do get referred in on a behavior problem,” Morrell said. “If you don’t get the behavior fixed, then you’ll never get the learning problem fixed.”

In order to help students improve their academic performance, she said the ALE classroom offers a different environment from their usual classrooms. There is a lot of one-on-one instruction, smaller class sizes and a variety of learning tools, such as 3-D puzzles and Legos.

“Six students is my biggest group all day,” Morrell said. “It’s a more homey feeling in the Bobcat Den, and we get to do a lot of fun projects. That’s really where we do a lot of our character building, such as working on cooperation.”

On the board above Morrell’s classroom table are the “Bobcat Lessons” — compassion, self-control, patience, forgiveness and honesty. She said she will do character education with these lessons and refer them back to the students’ math and literacy work. It’s all about teaching them habits to be better students, she said.

“I tie it all back in so they can carry it back into their regular classroom,” Morrell said.

Because of the smaller class sizes, she said she is able to give students more individualized instruction and let them learn outside of the traditional classroom setting.

“We go outside a lot when it’s warm and do games,” she said. “A regular classroom can’t do that because there are 25 students. We do lessons outside, and it’s so much more fun. They learn because kids learn from play.”

Morrell continued, “Going outside is almost like an instant relief for them. It’s a big reset button when we hit that door. Sometimes we’ll walk around the building to get that fresh air. It’s like the students have that separation from that big building to here.”

To make the Bobcat Den feel more like home, she said she and the students create everything in the room at the beginning of the school year.

“When we start the school year, everything is kind of plain Jane,” she said, “and we create it together so that they have a part in all of it. I think that’s really important for them. That way, it’s not ‘my classroom,’ it’s ‘our classroom.’ ”

Morrell said she and the students also develop a routine in the ALE classroom where they rotate between short lessons, working on projects, reading and free time in order to help them stay focused on each task.

“We have a class menu where they give me three to five minutes of work and they then have three to five minutes to choose what they work on,” she said. “On Friday, they get 15 minutes of free time, which we call ‘Free Time Friday.’ ”

One of her favorite parts of the ALE program, Morrell said, is all of the tools and resources available to help the students fill in their learning gaps. For example, she said many of her students still use the Base Ten Blocks or draw pictures to figure out math problems because it helps them visualize the problem better.

“One of my kids was still using the Base 10 Blocks yesterday, and it clicked with him that he could regroup and this is how he was going to do it,” she said. “He said ‘I can do this now! I’m a rock star! I’m going to show you that I can regroup without using those now.’ Three weeks ago, he was still using pictures.”

Mike Spears is the ALE instructor for Berryville Intermediate School. Spears said he tries to find out what his students are interested in and plan lessons around that. On Thursday, his students were working on their own Rube Goldberg machines.

Fourth-grader Ian Newberry explained that a Rube Goldberg machine is a complicated machine designed to perform a simple task. He had arranged a line of dominoes on one table with the goal of knocking a toy whale into a cup of water.

Spears said students were able to get creative with the ideas, such as fifth-grader Nathan Browntesch, who built a monster trap involving a string-operated elevator.

“I’m supposed to lower this elevator down, and it’s supposed to catch the monster,” Browntesch said.

Spears said the students got the idea to make Rube Goldberg machines from Larissa Allen’s gifted and talented (GT) class at the intermediate school.

“They saw a video at lunch about it and said ‘Can we do it?’ ” he said. “Since they were interested and it’s got some science, math and early engineering involved, I said ‘Let’s go for it.’ ”

The best part about the project, Spears said, is that the machines fail a lot and the students have to learn not to get frustrated with it and focus on problem solving.

“I’ve set mine up about 30 or so times,” Newberry said. “I haven’t gotten the whale in the water yet. I just need to fix the last section now.”

“They learn ‘I have to redo this and not get super frustrated,’ “ Spears said. “It’s part of learning. If it works, then they get really excited and it makes it so much better.”

Kindergarten teacher Mandy Williams said the ALE program has been great for classroom teachers as well.

“I had one student who was having trouble sitting still and focusing,” she said. “After spending some time in ALE, their behavior changed, and that student never gets in trouble now.”

Morrell said she taught kindergarten for 12 years before becoming an ALE instructor and never thought she would leave the regular classroom. Now, she said, she will never go back.

“I always thought when I taught kindergarten that I was changing lives,” she said. “Kids came to me and could barely potty themselves, and they left my class reading. That’s a huge impact that you’re making on a life.”

Morrell said she feels she can make an even bigger impact through the ALE program.

“Studies have shown that if you can change 5 percent of the male population and keep them out of jails and prisons,” she said, “then you’re saving up to $77 million. If we can reach them at this age when they need the school environment exposure and get them transitioned out at a young age, then that would decrease the need at the higher levels.”

Berryville has an ALE program on every campus, Morrell said. While the high school is more of a credit recovery program, she said the middle, intermediate and elementary schools focus on behavior lessons and personalized intervention.

She and Spears are currently full and have a waiting list for the ALE program, she said. Once a student transitions out or moves on to a new building, a spot will open up.

“In my three years, five students have successfully transitioned out of the program,” she said. “They have not had any setbacks at all. I have lots of parents who say it even carries back over at home and they see a huge difference.”

Morrell said she hopes the program can expand to two classrooms at the elementary and intermediate levels some day.

“I’m glad [principal] Kelly Swofford talked me into this,” she said. “I love doing what I do. I didn’t want to leave the classroom, and now I would never turn back.”

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