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A blue classroom: Teachers experiment with educational methods in Helena's only public preschool classroom

A blue classroom: Teachers experiment with educational methods in Helena's only public preschool classroom

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The boy, no more than 5-years-old, lay crying on the floor of the Ray Bjork Learning Center’s gymnasium while Michael “Dolan” Gilreath stood to the side, casually leaning against the stage.

To a passerby the scene might have looked like woeful negligence, to Gilreath it was another learning opportunity for one of his students.

“Behavior: It’s all communication. They’re trying to communicate something with their behavior,” Gilreath said.

For this student the lesson was finding an adult to express his feelings to, not crying on the floor. Gilreath said the method works.

Helena Public Schools runs a kindergarten through 12 grade system, except for the pre-kindergarten students in a Ray Bjork classroom run by Gilreath and his coworker, Jacob West.

The preschool program serves children from 3 to 5 years old who qualify as special education students. Children can qualify by showing delayed learning of speech and language, physical, cognitive, social or behavioral skills, according to the Helena Public Schools website.

The website states that students attend half-day preschools for two to four days a week, depending on their age and needs.

Gilreath and West run a classroom unlike any in the district.

Covering the fluorescent lights are blue cloth panels that the teachers say have a calming effect on their students with sensory difficulties.

The light is accompanied by background music, most likely something ranging from the 1920s through the 60s, eras which produced music with slower beats to keep kids relaxed.

Neon tape covers any potentially problematic corner, a suggestion the two accepted from the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind.

Not every student needs the unique tactics, but West said everyone benefits.

“Just putting (it) all together helps them, and it helps them not feel different,” West said.

All that supplements the educational methods that the two said are helping students.

Early in the morning students have “free choice” time, during which they can roam from station to station. Each station has some sort of educationally beneficial activity designed to allow the students to experiment.

Once “free choice” time is finished, one of the teachers turns on a clean up song and the students know to put everything away and head to the mat.

“Let’s get our bodies calm and ready to learn,” West said once all the students were gathered on the mats.

So they started to sing. Even integrating motor skills in with the music by moving and dancing.

Mid-alphabet song, one of the students stood up and went over to the reading corner to sit. Gilreath and West designated the reading corner as somewhere the students can go to calm down when they're feeling overwhelmed.

Each activity during the day had a hidden educational agenda. Even when identifying the date, West or Gilreath leads them through simple addition.

“Really at this age those kinds of skills aren’t developmentally appropriate, but we’re exposing it to them. … that way it isn’t a blank face when they see it,” Gilreath said.

The results of this?

“A lot of our students end up graduating out of special education,” Gilreath said.

Meaning that when students are tested again, those who showed delayed skills often don’t anymore. Or at least they make significant strides toward closing the gap.

“The biggest thing is just getting that early intervention,” Gilreath said.

He and West both said kindergarten teachers around the district are happy to have students from their class, even if it’s because the student knows how to ask to go to the bathroom.

To end the morning half-day class, students sit down for lunch “family style.” The kids all gather around a couple of tables and are served by the teachers. The idea is for students to learn social skills and table manners.

“Sam, would you like more chips?” West asked one student who quickly cleaned up his potato chips.

“More chips,” the 4-year-old said.

“What do you say?” Jake asked.

“Yes please, more chips,” Sam replied.

Alexander Deedy can be reached at 447-4081 or alexander.deedy@helenair.com

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