Leading Elementary Students Through the Jungle

Whenvisitors walk into Maxwell Elementary School, they are immediately struck bythe wildly colorful jungle murals lining the hallways, and by the large lionpaw prints placed playfully around the school. Clearly, the atmosphere has beendesigned with the intention of making this Thomson, Ga. preK-2 school anenvironment that encourages learning in a stimulating and fun way. Located in asmall, rural community about 130 miles east of Atlanta, this school of 450students recently received statewide recognition from Linda Schrenko, Georgia’sState Superintendent, as one of several schools in the state that have shownsignificant improvement, especially in standardized test scores. Sheacknowledged Maxwell Elementary as “a dream school,” and the school wasrecognized as a Georgia School of Excellence 2000.

Just a peek into any of the classrooms shows a buzz ofconstructive activity. For example, as one group of youngsters is beinginstructed by the classroom teacher in a direct reading or math lesson, anothergroup is working independently at centers. Finally, a third group is working oncomputers using the A+dvanced Learning System, software that helps studentsbuild a foundation of basic skills. Although the school is efficient, clean andorganized, the recognition by the Georgia State Superintendent is treasuredhighly by much of the staff because they know firsthand how drastically theschool has changed in the past three years.


Changingthe Face of Maxwell

In 1997, Principal Hanna Fowler and Assistant Principal PatBiggerstaff joined the administrative staff of the school and took on thechallenge of transforming Maxwell Elementary into a remarkable student-centeredlearning environment for young children. They started by giving the school amuch-needed facelift. The students in this Title I school were performing belowacceptable levels in both the classroom and on standardized tests. Test scoreson the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) were consistently below the 50thpercentile in reading and math. In several instances, the student test scoreswere below the 35th percentile. Finally, there were many student disciplineproblems.

Fowler and Biggerstaff decided their first task was to makethe school look like a young child’s educational environment. With the willinghelp of the school staff, they started the daunting process. First, theycleared out inadequate educational equipment and then took inventory of theremaining supplies. Up-to-date equipment such as desks, chairs, books,computers and manipulatives were purchased. Next, they repainted the entireschool. With backgrounds in art, both Fowler and Biggerstaff transformed theschool into a jungle by painting murals on the walls within the school. The newmascot, Max the Lion, quickly became a symbol of the hard work and commitmentof this school community where every staff member and student promises to doeverything “To The Max!”

Now that the school looked like a teaching and learningenvironment for young children, their next task was to improve student academicskills and discipline. The principals established a school-wide discipline planthat contained reasonable rules, with clear and effective consequences. Theyalso provided input in removing the existing social promotion policy. Thepolicy now requires students to meet specified academic requirements tograduate to the next grade.


IntegratingBasic Skill Curriculum Technology

To help students effectively acquire the academic skillsnecessary for grade promotion, Fowler and Biggerstaff decided to focus onimproving student reading and math ability. Realizing that technology couldplay a tremendous role in enhancing their curriculum, they investigateddifferent types of software that would allow the educators to facilitatestudent acquisition of basic skills. Since each student had different academicneeds, the principals wanted a system that could individualize lessons inalignment with a “no nonsense” approach to learning. Their choice was theA+dvanced Learning System, published by The American Education Corporation.

A+LS, curriculum-based software that enables teachers tobuild a fully integrated learning system, gave the teachers the necessary toolsto develop individualized lesson plans for each of their students. Afteridentifying each student’s developmental level of learning, teachers prescribedA+LS curriculum to build reading and math skills and to prepare them forassessments in areas including physical education, music, art and the ITBS.

A+LS is part of a basic skill curriculum program at Maxwellthat has students reading three hours a day and building math skills forone-and-a-half hours daily. Other subjects that are needed to round out thecurriculum, such as science and social studies, are taught through theimplementation of A/B Block scheduling. According to Biggerstaff, it was thestrong focus on basic skills that led them to choose A+LS. “The A+dvancedLearning System is a ‘no frills’ computer program highly correlated with ourcurriculum that provides individualized quality instructional time for all students regardless of their abilitylevel.”

Biggerstaff took it upon herself to become familiar with thecurriculum in A+LS in order to be a resource to the teachers as they began toimplement the program into their classrooms. Although teachers needed hersupport during the initial implementation phase, Biggerstaff notes that theynow rarely ask for her assistance, as they are more familiar with theeasy-to-use software program.

On average, teachers incorporate A+LS into their curriculumfor at least 30 minutes per student each day. With networked computers in allclassrooms, coupled with center-based learning activities, teachers have noproblem organizing their classroom environment so each student has theopportunity to use the individualized lessons.



With a new focus on teacher accountability, basic skillstechnology, consistent disciplinary practices and a student-focused learningenvironment, the school community of Maxwell Elementary began to see theeffects of their changes within a year. Their ITBS scores increased as much as30% in the areas of reading and math (see Fig. 1). The once frequent instancesof behavior problems have been significantly reduced. Grade level retention hasalso significantly reduced, with almost all students being promoted on schedule(see Fig.2).

Fowler, Biggerstaff and the teaching staff are thrilledabout the accomplishments of their students. In the future, they plan tocontinue their use of A+LS in their school’s curriculum in order to see theirtest scores rise. They also plan to incorporate the A+dvanced Learning Systeminto their grading system. When asked about their school’s astonishingimprovements, Principal Fowler responds, “The A+LS program has been a veryimportant piece in our instructional program. It has helped us achieve our goalto have every student exit second grade at J.A. Maxwell Elementary literate andnumerate.”



American Education Corp.

Oklahoma City, OK



This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.