Commencement: A Look Backstage

Commencement: A Look Backstage

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

At high schools all across the country, this is the season of caps and gowns, diplomas, ceremonies and speeches. These traditions mark the finish of one part of a young person’s journey through the educational system we call school, and we hope will mark their commencement—the next phase of that journey to adulthood, self actualization, fulfillment and contribution to our communities, our democratic society, and the marketplace.

For our students at Lawrence School here in Northeast Ohio, commencement looks much the same as it does everywhere else.  We just celebrated our 8th Annual Convocation where many of our students received accolades and acknowledgements of their outstanding achievements in the classroom, on the fields and courts of athletic endeavor, and in the arts and sciences where so many of our students shine with incipient greatness.

But if we take a look behind the  stories of triumph and success—if we look behind trappings of the ceremonies—we will be forced to confront some distressing facts:

  • The students who attend Lawrence and who have graduated from our high school over the past six years have had to struggle with reading, writing, and attentional challenges that have nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence or desire to succeed, but often cause of academic failure in the general education system.
  • Students identified with these challenges in our country are disproportionately represented in the statistics that describe the high school drop-out population, the prison population, the unemployed and under-employed population.
  • Dyslexia (or language-based learning differences), according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is the most commonly occurring learning difference in the country and may impact 15  to 20 % of the total school population.
  • Only 13% of students identified with these challenges nationally matriculate to colleges and universities—yet these same kids grow up and show up disproportionately in the ranks of successful entrepreneurs and small business owners.  In a 2007 study published in the New York Times, thirty five percent of American entrepreneurs described themselves as dyslexic—school failures.

At Lawrence, 96% of our graduates matriculate to two-year or four-year colleges and universities. Colleges seek our kids—and offer significant scholarships to them—because perhaps our students have overcome major obstacles on their journey to the graduation stage. They understand themselves and demonstrate resilience, uncommon courage, and the capacity to persevere against the odds.

There are among our students the future Charles Schwabs, Whoopi Goldbergs, Richard Bransons, Bruce Jenners and Danny Glovers.  There are future small business owners, teachers, technicians; future employers and growers of our economy; future inventors of technology; and future solvers of problems we can’t know or name yet.

There are among our graduates young men and women who understand that education and accomplishment can never be taken for granted, and that a successful young person is the work of many hands and hearts coming together to resolve problems and find a way around or over obstacles.

That we fail so many of these talented and intelligent students by refusing to personalize the education we offer our young people—refuse to apply the research we have had at our finger tips for decades regarding the teaching of reading—is a national disgrace that contributes to our nation’s struggle to remain a leader in the world’s commerce and communities.

Truth be told, matriculation is not necessarily a good predictor of success for students leaving high school. The attrition rates, particularly in the first year of college, have been consistently high and only a little more than half of the students who start college programs ever earn a four year degree.

But for now at least, I am going to rest my head on my pillow and sleep soundly knowing that 96% of our Lawrence graduates are willing to take the risk and make the leap to higher education. And they are willing to do this despite years of struggles, a history of failure in elementary school, and numerous blows and insults to their self esteem delivered by caring and well meaning educators who did not understand who they were or how they learned.

I will celebrate each and every one of them for not giving up or giving in; for not drawing conclusions about themselves based on how they did in school; for refusing to believe what they were told about what they could or couldn’t do—particularly when they were being unfairly compared to peers using test scores that reveal little about real problem solving ability.

I will celebrate the fact that they retained faith in their families and in themselves, so that they could ultimately find a way to rescue their aspirations for higher learning from the dust, debris and rubble of their school experiences.

I will sleep well thinking of the parents who come to Lawrence—scarred by their interactions with other educational systems—to find finally at Lawrence that they are not alone, they are among friends, that their “dissed” children (dyslexic, dysgraghic, disorganized) need no longer be discouraged or disappointing.

Then I will wake up and wonder why every child in the United States can’t experience the same awakening of their spirit.

Why every family can’t find themselves embraced and empowered by the collective spirit of those who know there is a better and more hopeful way.

Why every child does not have the same opportunity to be understood, accepted, affirmed and ultimately held accountable for what they can and will learn when provided with a program strategically designed and aligned to meet their needs and capitalize on their strengths.

Why, indeed?

Email Lou Salza at or leave a comment below.


About lsalza

Headmaster of Lawrence School serving children with learning differences in grades K-12; "Where differences are not disabilities and where great minds don't think alike."
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16 Responses to Commencement: A Look Backstage

  1. Barb Andrews says:

    Well put and exactly how I feel and why I spent so many years trying to help at the school which eventually became Lawrence. I’m printing and saving this. Thanks, Barb

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thank you Barb! I appreciate the feedback and especially your history of understanding and support for the school!

  2. Maureen Weigand says:

    I’m printing and saving as well. Brilliant — the problem is that schools don’t have any idea about individual differences, so kids get labeled negatively and no one feels the need to ensure that they learn.

    I sat a convocation last night marveling at the accomplishments of Lawrence kids, including my own. Lawrence has saved her academic and emotional life in many ways. She got no academic awards, but she cheered for her friends who have academic success. She feels a part of a community of students which is a critical part of her motivation to do her work, turn it in, and work hard when the work is hard.

    She has good friends for the first time in her life.

    Have you noticed that Lawrence is the adopted kids’ school?

    I’ll leave that last question hanging out there — there’s a reason that adopted kids’ families find Lawrence.

    Thank you for all that you and your colleagues do.

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thanks for sharing this! When students arrive at Lawrence they quickly experience what we now recognize is a kind of ‘normalization’ of their experience. They meet other kids who have had similar experiences and they quickly get absorbed into the life of the school. Parents have described a similar feeling of relief or feeling like they belong. And yes, we have lots of adopted children at Lawrence. We recently began tracking this.


  3. Colleen Bailis says:

    Well said, Lou! My husband and I were two of those parents who were “scarred” by interactions with other educational systems. Our family has found a welcoming island of awesome teachers, administrators and parents in a sea of turmoil and uncertainty. Thanks to all of you for making it possible for these children to enjoy learning and for giving them the tools to be successful in the future! Colleen Bailis

    • Lou Salza says:

      Credit and kudos go to the teaching faculty, the administrative team, and the staff who are committed to creating the kind of environment in which students can thrive. Credit also goes to our students who have never given up–and to you–their parents for supporting and believing in them.

  4. Patti Saraniti says:

    Well said Lou! I thank the Heavens above every day for putting my son on the path to Lawrence. My husband and I sat in the audience last night at Convocation and watched our son recieve an award for “Perseverance”. Because of Lawrence School, he can shine, both inside and out.

  5. Greg Thomas says:

    Lou, there is such a strong correlation between what you are saying and what Sir Ken Robinson has to say about education (, there’s got to be a natural collaboration somewhere there. Keep doing the good work. Lawrence has been the difference maker in our son’s life.

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thanks Greg! I love his lectures on TED! His points about creativity, innovation are based on changing our instructional approach to a strengths-based model. I am proud to say we are working on this at Lawrence.
      Graduation was a blast! Speakers were OUTSTANDING!

  6. Jeanine Maddox says:

    You wrote what I feel about our wonderful school. Last night my daughter and I were looking at her class pictures from kindergarten at the local public school to today at Lawrence. When we looked at the neighborhood school pictures she pointed out the kids who made fun of her. When we got to the Lawrence school picures she pointed out her friends. Thank you Lawrence teachers, administrators and fellow parents.

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thanks for sharing this–when I sit down to have lunch with our lower school students one of the questions I ask them is about school was like before they came to Lawrence. Almost everyone tells stories about feeling picked on or bullied–by kids and amazingly– by teachers. We now know that if students do not feel safe–if they feel intimidated or wary, they simply can not learn, remember or focus as efficiently or effectively. And you are exactly right–it is our teachers, administrators and students who create the environment that helps so many of our kids finally experience success.

  7. Tracie Guggenheim says:

    We haven’t met, but our son Andrew is a new 4th grader at Lawrence (enrolled April 12,2010). Your comments were extremely well stated. Thank you for understanding our journey!
    Tracie Guggenheim

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thanks Tracie,
      Welcome to Lawrence and welcome to Parent’s Pride! If you have time to drop in to the Mod on the lower school campus, I would love to hear your initial impressions of the school and your experience before Lawrence. I am there two days a week–

  8. Teri Coughlin says:

    After reading your blog I am even more excited for our son to begin the 2010-2011 school year. CJ will be a new 1oth grader at Lawrence. Looking forward to meeting you.. Teri

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