There are many wonderful events in an independent school community that make our work on behalf of children inspiring and fun. One of my favorite “perks” is the time I get to spend talking with parents and grandparents. Two such recent opportunities to connect and socialize with parents came through the ‘Living Room Chats’ series we hold each fall. Hosted by Lawrence parents, each ‘Chat’ provides groups of between 12-30 parents an opportunity to engage in informal discussion about our most important mutual concern—the children of Lawrence School.
The truth is, this entire sector of what is referred to as “special education” – and most of the three hundred plus special-purpose independent schools across the country that work with children who have learning differences – was founded, propelled or sustained by parents. They were parents who watched their children enter first grade with high hopes and expectations, only to have dreams dashed and spirits discouraged by experiences in school. They were parents who knew that there needed to be more options for our children than the one-size-fits-all general education curriculum found in most public, private and parochial schools.
Back in the ‘60s, it was parents who started the first special purpose independent schools. It was parents who lobbied educators and psychologists, parents who pushed pediatricians and legislators, and parents who raised money to start after-school and summertime tutorial services.
In the ‘70s, parents were the ones who finally beat down the doors of lawmakers in Washington D.C., and passed the first version of Public Law 94-142, now called IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). This legislation was influenced by several state Departments of Education which, in turn, were influenced by strong parent advocacy groups often associated with independent schools offering tutorial services, summer programs, and alternative year-round programs to smart kids who were underachieving and dropping out of their local schools.
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were only a handful of independent schools for students with learning differences like dyslexia and ADD. By the middle ‘90s, there were about 200 such schools, and now there are over 300. Indeed, special purpose schools for students with learning differences and twice-exceptional students (high IQ but low achievement) are the third fastest growing sector of the educational industry, just behind home schooling and charter schools.
In 2004, the International Dyslexia Association published a special theme journal about private LD schools and their founders, noting the extraordinary impact this small group of schools has had on public education in the United States. I, in turn, would give the credit for this high impact to the parents – particularly moms – who were the inspiration, perspiration and motivation behind this phenomenon.
So, I began our recent living room chats with a shout out to parents—with an expression of gratitude to moms who, in the process of trying to solve the problems their own children encountered trying to learn to read in the public schools, kept knocking on doors, asking questions, and requesting help. These moms did not stop until they pushed or kicked open doors all the way from the local public school principal’s office to the offices of state and national legislators.
My interest in this movement is not exclusively professional – I have personal skin in this game! While I was at the University of Massachusetts in the early ‘70s my parents were struggling to understand why my youngest brother, Adio (13 years younger than I) was unable to learn to read in the primary grades. He was having difficulties with every aspect of school from focusing attention to reading and spelling. Yet he was clearly an intelligent, highly verbal and very funny kid going to a well-funded, “good” suburban public school.
My parents, Lou and Lillian, grew up in large Italian immigrant families in Boston. Both left school to go to work and help support their families. My father was a blue collar factory foreman and amateur boxer but it was my mom, armed with only a 9th grade education and a fierce determination to get the right opportunities for my little brother, who took the lead in meeting with teachers and school administrators. When those meetings proved ineffectual, she moved on to town hall and then the state house.
Lillian was relentless. She secured placement for my brother at the Landmark School for children with dyslexia, north of Boston, where he was finally able to learn to read and write. He graduated high school (the only expectation ever levied on me and my brothers by our parents), gave college a try for a semester, left, and started working in the building trades. He is now married with three sons.
Curious about the curriculum and methods used at schools like Landmark, I followed my brother there after teaching two years in Philadelphia Public Schools. I took training and a teaching position there in 1975, beginning a journey of personal and professional discovery that continues to this day here in northeast Ohio at Lawrence School.
I am inspired by, and grateful to our parents, my own and those I meet daily in my work. Their courage and tenacity gave birth to an entire educational industry that now addresses the needs of different learners in public, charter and independent schools. Over the last three decades we have learned so much about how to educate and support our children who struggle with learning differences.
In a remarkable book, Rethinking Learning Disabilities: Understanding Children Who Struggle in School, clinician and author Deborah Waber cites some fascinating longitudinal research regarding outcomes for children who were referred during childhood for special education programs. She concludes:
“Children are most distressed by their learning disabilities in the early years of school. As time goes on… especially after they leave school – learning issues are of less concern.” (p. 85)
The ability of children to successfully adapt is driven by three important factors: supportive parents, school environments where children are not harmed emotionally by the response to the learning challenges they face, and positive personal qualities (adequate social skills, perseverance, and self awareness). Academic skills are only one part of the picture. These other factors – that are often overlooked – are just as important as we help our children develop the resilience and strength they will need to make their way towards their rightful place in the future.
In her book, Waber also reviews a now-famous study on risk and resilience: Resilience and Recovery: Findings From the Kauai Longitudinal Study. The study followed 698 children with risk factors such as learning disabilities and poverty on the island of Kauai in Hawaii from their birth in 1955 to their 40th birthday. The main lesson from the study is that life after these children leave school is much better than their lives were during school:
“Children whose skill set may be ill adapted to the very narrow and specific academic requirements of school can be well adapted as adults for the more diverse world of work, if they can identify their niche. Yet school can be so discouraging, at times irrelevant, and blind to their assets that it can take many years for them to recover a sense of self efficacy and find their way.” (p. 82)
At Lawrence we are proud that our seniors graduate and matriculate at rates that are comparable to competitive private and public schools in our region and nation. So it should be for all children with learning differences—indeed all children who are considered at risk for school failure. And we are proud of those students who, like my brother Adio, decide not to continue the battle in higher education but to instead pursue vocations and develop skills and career interests aligned with their strengths and affinities – an asset often ignored by our singular focus on academics in school.
As we light the candles and lights of the holiday season I reflect with gratitude and pride on the dedication and love of the parents I meet in my work at Lawrence. They, like my mother Lillian, provide the care, courage and commitment at home to their children that we build on every day at school. I thank all the parents, relatives and friends who sacrifice and struggle to understand, support and nurture their children, often prevailing against long odds. At Lawrence we thrive on the energy and light our parents provide. We know from our work that it is their support and love that will make our work more effective and make such a difference in the lives of children.
Lillian is 91 now and lives in a nursing home in East Boston operated by the Archdiocese of Boston. Her memory dims but her spirit burns brightly. She lights candles at Mass everyday for my father and the friends and family she has lost – and for my two brothers and me who she has never stopped worrying about (in my case with good reason)!
Let us follow Lillian’s example and the example of the parents I am so honored to meet in my work at school and keep the lamps of learning burning in every room in our homes and in every classroom, research clinic and office we can influence. Let’s ignite our children’s potential – just like it says in the Lawrence mission statement – and let’s work together to expand the circles of light we are so privileged to tend on behalf of children who learn differently.
Happy holidays and best wishes to us all in the New Year!