ACE program has right ingredients for academic enrichment

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

BERTRAM — Buffy Jackson didn’t hesitate when she gave the Bertram Elementary School student the knife. She just handed it to over and then gave the youth an apple with simple instructions.

“I just need you to cut the apple up,” she said. Then, Jackson began outlining other instructions for the rest of the half-dozen students gathered around her in the kitchen at First United Methodist Church of Bertram. The kids joked and laughed, but each took to his or her assigned task for making fondue.

Welcome to Bertram Elementary School’s ACE Program. On Wednesdays, students can chose to take a cooking enrichment class or one of the several other courses site coordinator Jason Zoll has lined up for them. But it’s only after the kids spend about an hour doing homework after regular classes that they roll into the enrichment classes.

“Sure, it’s about having fun,” Zoll said. “But we really want them to work on their academics. And you’d be amazed how happy the kids are to get their homework done. And we know their parents are happy about it.”

The program is part of the Burnet County Consortium ACE Program that involves seven campuses in the Burnet and Marble Falls school districts. Last year, the two districts created the consortium to apply for a Texas 21st Century Community Learning Centers (ACE) Grant that would provide funding for the after-school program. The consortium landed the grant, which led to the creation of the unique programs at several campuses.

Each campus involved includes a site coordinator such as Zoll. The grant also funds paying teachers to assist with the academics and other portions of it.

At the elementary level, Zoll explained the students get the additional time for academics and tutoring, but many of them really look forward to the enrichment classes, including cooking, yoga, robotics, gardening and a list of others. The students rotate through different enrichment classes over the weeks.

“Each campus is a bit different,” Zoll said. “It really depends on their needs and the kids.”

At Burnet Middle School, site coordinator Laura Berlin, who is a former Peace Corps member, finds herself surrounded by more than a dozen students. They’re asking her where to go or where this or that is. She fields the questions, telling them the jewelry making class is canceled today but will be back.

“Yeah, it looks like chaos sometimes, but they really do get it,” she said. Just as at the elementary school, the ACE Program at the middle school starts with at least an hour of homework or other academic work. Students who need additional help can get it from middle school teachers who assist.

“The teachers are amazing,” Berlin said. “They’ve just spent the entire day in class, but they stick around and help out with the program. It’s been great.”

When she started creating the middle school ACE Program, Berlin wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. What would the kids want? What could she provide? Since the first of the school year, she has learned, adapted and accepted.

“I listen to the kids a lot and see what they want,” she said. “Parents make suggestions as well.”

Some of the enrichment programs include guitar lessons, martial arts, cooking, arts and crafts and even a game room. Along with teachers, she gets support from the community such as the staff of Mad Dawg Fitness, who help with physical activity programs.

One of the goals of the program is to get the community and businesses involved. Zoll found when he turned to the Bertram community for help and support, the response was incredible. Sure, he pointed out, Bertram might not have all the resources of other nearby cities, but that didn’t stop residents and businesses from stepping up to help.

“I’d say the community involvement has been one of the best things about this,” he said. “You have people coming in to help who may not even have kids here. So now, they see this not just as ‘the school’ but as ‘their school.’ That’s good for everybody.”

Like her colleagues in Bertram and Burnet, Marble Falls High School site coordinator Elizabeth Dodge had an idea of what she wanted to create with the high school ACE Program.

“I had this idea of having lots of activities and things to do,” she said with a smile. But soon, after working with the students, she learned that was not exactly what they were interested in. After a long day at school, one of the things the students seemed to appreciate was gathering with friends over some games and just talking.

But the high school students still have several enrichment choices.

The main emphasis at Marble Falls is, however, academics. The high school program also starts with academic studies and homework. Along with regular homework (monitored by several high school teachers), students struggling in classes such as biology, English and Algebra head for specific classrooms, where they get intensive intervention. There’s also additional help for students working to pass their standardized tests.

“And the surprising thing is that’s what the students want,” Dodge said. “They know that these academics are important. So they see this as a chance to get additional help.”

For many Marble Falls High School students, this is the first time they’ve really been able to take advantage of after-school tutoring or academic assistance because the ACE Program provides transportation home.

“Yeah, I’ve had to adjust what I thought the program would be, but this is what the students need and want,” Dodge said. “And that’s what’s important — the students.”

Go to mfisd.ss3.sharpschool.com and look under the “Departments” heading for the “Burnet County Consortium ACE Program” to learn more.

daniel@thepicayune.com