New Teaching Method Helps Students In Real World

Stonewall Jackson High School special education teacher Julie Whitaker, center, looks over the shoulder of student Garrett Lloyd, 15, of Edinburg, while his mother Sheila, right, looks on during class on Tuesday. Garrett has had much success over the school’s implementation of the Competent Learner Model this past school year. Rich Cooley/Daily


By Kim Walter

QUICKSBURG – When Julie Neese-Whitaker first met 15-year-old Garrett Lloyd, she realized that he struggled with basic communication and often got so frustrated that he wound up in a ball on the floor.

That behavior wasn’t necessarily new to the Stonewall Jackson High School resource teacher — she had worked with adults and students with multiple challenges for several years.

Now, the recently implemented Competent Learner Model helps Garrett sit happily in his classroom, participating and working toward small goals.

That has Whitaker very excited.

Garrett has Down syndrome and was diagnosed with autism at age 6. He’s been in the Shenandoah County school system his entire life, but has shown more progress in the past year than ever before.

“I think before we would get frustrated, and so would the kids,” Whitaker said in her special education classroom Tuesday afternoon. “But now we have real things to work toward and we know that sometimes it’s better to just stop and take a break.”

The Competent Learner Model, which came to the school in January 2012, helps students with cognitive, physical, developmental and medical disabilities develop skills that not only foster academic success, but also success in daily life.

The model focuses on seven repertoires – talking, listening, observing, reading, problem solving, writing and participating — which impact day to day functional actions.

Teachers undergo intensive training and continuing professional development to keep up with the curriculum and lessons used to move a student through the model.

Students are assessed during the model’s implementation so their teacher knows what part of the curriculum to start with. Whitaker said the flexibility of the curriculum is helpful, as some students are able to make it through a lesson a month, while others move at a much slower pace.

Within each lesson are a number of activities teachers can use to test the growth of a student — the more a student increases in lesson level, the more core repertoires he or she is required to exemplify. Before graduating to the next lesson, a student has to be assessed to prove they’re ready.

Teachers also are equipped with binders of materials and a CLM coach, who ensures successful implementation in the classroom and conducts performance reviews to determine if the educators are meeting pre-established criteria for each unit.

Whitaker credits her CLM coach, Shonnet Brand, with being there “every step of the way,” offering different teaching techniques and activity options. However, Brand said being a coach has taught her a lot in return.

“I work with behavioral analysis, so the education piece of this was very interesting to me,” she said. “These teachers do more than a lot of people imagine.”

Brand said basic subject matter like science, math, and social studies is part of the model, but the main goal is helping students become independent parts of their community.

“Of course things like SOLs are important, but there are so many other skills that these students need to master before leaving school,” she said. “With the model, teachers have ways to incorporate a bit of everything.”

Over the past year, Whitaker has seen so much improvement in Garrett that she presented on his progress during the Shenandoah Valley Regional Program’s CLM meeting in April. It included four other school divisions around Shenandoah County.

“Because of the way assessments are done, we have a visual way of tracking student success,” Whitaker said. “I think that’s what really made me realize that this works. I can look at Garrett’s sheet and see where he needs help, but I can also see how far he’s come.”

Sheila Lloyd, Garrett’s mother, said middle school was particularly tough for her son as he began to withdraw. She said it became normal for her to get about five phone calls a week, if not more, about Garrett refusing to participate or do work in class.

“It was very frustrating because I didn’t see the same struggles at home,” she said. “And then I get calls asking me to help calm him down or persuade him to do work, and I didn’t really know what to say.”

Through the model, Whitaker learned that Garrett did better with several small goals throughout the day so that he was more motivated to continuously do work. He also responded quickly to visual reminders of his daily schedule.

When Lloyd found out her son had done so well with the CLM in just one year, she said she couldn’t help but cry.

“Look at him, he’s happy,” she said as she watched Garrett complete a worksheet with virtually no supervision. “If this is what he can do in a year, I can’t even imagine what he’ll learn during the rest of high school.”

The CLM also is being used in several middle and elementary schools in Shenandoah County. Whitaker said she feels it’s the best thing for local students with multiple disabilities.

“My kids have progressed so much already, so imagine where they would be if they had started on the CLM back in elementary school,” she said. “Honestly, I had my doubts when we started, but this is what we should’ve been doing all along.”

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or [email protected]

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