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The game of learning
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Helena Foster began working as Middle Ridge Elementary School's upper elementary academic coach at the beginning of the spring semester last school year.

As a college undergraduate, Foster earned her degree in computer information systems.

"I did an internship in CIS and at the time I was a military spouse," Foster said, "and it didn't accommodate being a military wife with children, plus it was cold and boring."

Looking for a different career path, she began teaching high school business in 1996 while living in Oklahoma and earned her master's degree in special education.

Foster's oldest son has been diagnosed with autism and his academic struggles as well as her family's battle for answers inspired her to study special education.

"When he was little, nobody knew what it was," Foster said.

She said her son was often lumped into self-contained classrooms with children with behavioral disorders.

When the family moved to Georgia, her son was finally placed in the students with learning disabilities category.

She said the biggest challenge as a parent or teacher of a child with mental disabilities stems from the unique characteristics of each child's condition.

 "The biggest challenge is becoming aware that if you teach a child with autism - that's it, you've taught one child with autism," Foster said. "They're all different."

When Foster's family moved to Georgia in 2000, there were no teaching positions available in high school business, but plenty available in all elementary grades.

 Foster began last school year as a fourth grade teacher, but in the spring stepped in to be Middle Ridge's upper elementary academic coach.

The two academic coaches at Middle Ridge work toward bringing the support services students need at the school listed in the "needs improvement" category under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

Middle Ridge did not meet adequate yearly progress in the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 school years and had to offer additional academic support to students who needed it.

Not only does Foster coordinate testing and complete state-mandated data reporting, but also she conducts professional learning seminars and sits in on grade level meetings - afterwards offering suggestions for improvements.

"I'm a bouncing board basically," Foster said.

During the course of a year Foster will make contact with every third through fifth grade student at Middle Ridge and visits three to five classes a day.

She works with students on an individual and small group basis as well.

"The main thing I do is get all teachers on board with keeping students engaged and of course ultimately by doing that, ensuring they pass the CRCT," Foster said.

According to Foster the biggest challenges academic coaches face are state reforms making the curriculum more rigorous as well as the pressure brought on by Middle Ridge's "needs improvement" AYP status.

"Getting teachers to embrace the changes and get on board is the biggest battle," Foster said, "and helping them realize the value of the changes to our kids."

Foster said she aspires to become an assistant principal in the next couple of years and, therefore, earned a specialist degree the educational leadership.

 She said in order to attain her leadership goals, she is willing to change her environment as long as it's within Newton County.

 "With the growth we're experiencing, I could and would work anywhere in the county," Foster said.

 She said she enjoys not only students' "light bulb moments" but also when teachers begin understanding concepts during professional learning.

"Working with adults is just like working with kids," Foster said.

 Foster added she loves to observe classrooms where teachers create a fun learning environment for their students, where they are excited about their lessons and eager to hear and know more.