Program's mission is reducing aggression

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Soft music plays in the background.

About 10 students listen carefully as teacher Renae Dove reads them a story, flipping though cards looking for a connection.

The cards list 14 character traits -- honestly, self-esteem, responsibility -- that students are expected to identify as they hear them in the story.

For these students, the activity is an important one. They are learning what traits embody specific characteristics so they can model them each day.

The students are enrolled in A.R.T. class -- Aggression Replacement Training, the mission of which is to reduce the number of students at risk for suspension, expulsion and dropout.

A.R.T. students learn academic, social and behavioral skills.

"I really don't like it, but sometimes there's fun stuff to do," eighth-grader Josh Sonntag said.

His mom doesn't care whether he likes it or not. He's staying in the program.

"I love it," she said. "I think it's fantastic. I can see it working for other people's kids. My son ... he's a difficult case but it's coming."

The A.R.T. concept has existed for 15 years, but it's only been in the past five years that the program has been workable in a school setting to the degree that its use is spreading across the county.

The school district received a grant that paid for the program's implementation in Moffat County.

Aggression, school district social worker Alison Hobson said, isn't just defined as a violent act for this program.

"Whenever a kid constantly challenges the rules, that's considered aggression because they're not accepting that some rules are good for us.

"We're trying to intervene before it becomes a problem in life."

Sonntag admits he's not big on following rules.

"I have a big rule problem," he said. "I break rules without even thinking about it."

The program is for any student at risk for not being successful socially or academically.

There are between 30 and 40 students at Craig Intermediate School and Craig Middle School enrolled in the program.

They enter through referral, by teachers, school staff members or parents.

CIS A.R.T. students are in the class for 45 minutes a day.

At the seventh- and eighth-grade levels, students can be in class anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours a day.

However, the program has a longer reach than that.

Students are placed on levels based on their behavior and performance.

All students start at level one. Then, they have to take their lunch break in the A.R.T. room.

At Level 2, they can go to the cafeteria, but the can only eat with other A.R.T. students.

At Level 3, they can eat with whomever they want, and at Level 4 they go outside after lunch.

When a student finishes out the year at Level 4, they're not likely to return, having "graduated."

Each week, the A.R.T. program sponsors parent empowerment night, where parents attend and learn the same skill their students are practicing.

The evening begins with a dinner, at which students serve their parents.

It's followed by role playing and other activities that show parents what their kids are doing in class.

"A lot of this stuff is new," eighth-grade student Jamie Johns said.

"But we're learning good communication skills."

Johns said she's using the skills she learns in class at home in an attempt at better communication with her family.

"It's helped," she said.

A.R.T., Hobson said, is designed to build skills that students need to make it through school.

"We wanted to offer help to really make changes, not just more of the same thing. The same old responses aren't helping at-risk kids," she said.

Through A.R.T., students learn empathy, anger management, character education and social skills.

They do a lot of role play to ensure they practice the skills they learn.

"Research shows that when you teach kids these skills, they learn how to learn," Hobson said. "Hopefully, the outcome will be improved grades, social skills, behavior and attendance."

It's Hobson's goal that the program works so well that the school district continues to fund it even when the grant runs out.

She also wants to move the model into the high school.

"Hopefully when the grant ends, we'll have achieved sustainability and the school district will see the value of continuing the program," she said.

"Every student who doesn't drop out earns the school money."

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