It is hard to grasp the certain reality that another summer has past and that school has begun anew – but the signs were all there even two weeks ago. Teachers, custodians, and administrative staff were moving quickly through the hallways at both our campuses here at Lawrence School in northeast Ohio. Rooms were being arranged, supplies distributed, and meetings and orientation sessions began peppering my schedule.
Lawrence School is the only independent school in this region for students who learn differently. However, we are part of a growing network of schools across the country serving really smart kids with active intellects who struggle and are held back from learning because they have language-based learning differences and/or challenges focusing attention.
This school year, we opened with over 270 students from 70 towns and cities. We draw students from 11 counties with some parents commuting 90 minutes each way to get their child to the right learning environment.
At Lawrence – as in many other schools – we begin the year with a series of faculty meetings to welcome teachers back from their summer sojourns. The week-long orientation and training sessions began with a kick-off at the Broadview Heights campus, where we viewed a TED Talk given by Sir Ken Robinson.
The 18-minute presentation resonated deeply for many of us because Ken Robinson spoke to the themes and aspirations we have worked assiduously to achieve for our students and our faculty members here at Lawrence. He talked to us about how we educate or children, how we help them recognize and capitalize on their gifts and talents, and how we can help them achieve their dreams.
He talked to us about that which matters most.
Robinson described a “second climate crisis” right here in our schools and classrooms. He compared the gifts and talents possessed by students to natural resources and spoke of the need to “dig deep”. Human talents and resources, he counseled, are like natural resources – often buried deep – and one has to dig far under the surface to find them.
According to Robinson, the reason we have failed so many of our students is because we have built schools on an industrial rather than agricultural model. Instead of digging deep to discover individual resources, we standardize the programs and curriculum offered in our schools – just as fast food restaurants standardize ingredients and menus regardless of location or clientele.
At Lawrence we understand the value of smaller, personalized educational venues that Robinson encouraged. We are a venue where talents and gifts can be encouraged and surfaced; where students and teachers feel connected and invested in one another; where there is a strong community focused on teaching and learning; where students are accepted for who they are; where strengths, affinities and challenges are affirmed; and where students are simultaneously held accountable and supported to do their best.
To underscore his point that he believes the current condition of our schools rises to the level of a crisis and deserve to be met with a sense of urgency, Robinson quoted Abraham Lincoln’s annual address to Congress delivered in the middle of 1862 (in the middle of the Civil War for those who are rusty on their US history):
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Robinson identified some of the erroneous ideas that we are “enthrall” to in our schools: that learning is linear, that one size fits all, that students develop in parallel and congruent tracks determined by age or test scores.
At Lawrence, we understand what matters.
We practice a high stakes, high risk type of education. Many of the students who come to us arrive wounded by their past experiences in school—not because no one cares for these kids, but because their particular, sometimes unusual way of learning or processing information was simply misunderstood and out of reach for the general standardized curriculum.
The gates that students must pass through and the hoops we often make them jump through – tasks like memorizing useless bits of information, passing high-stakes tests, or earning high grades and doing excessive amounts of homework – these add little to the real equation of learning. And they matter least when it comes to the knowledge and skills necessary for problem solving in the real world.
What we do matters. We know that if we fail, our students may not get another chance at succeeding in school. And that matters.
- Item: According to the International Dyslexia Association, of children with learning problems in the first grade, 74% will be poor readers in the ninth grade without appropriate intervention.
Lawrence matters because we know that children do not out grow reading and language difficulties – but they can overcome them given the right kind of education. At Lawrence, not only do we stop students from the backsliding that happens in most schools that do not serve our specific population, but we actually reverse the trend. Because of our systematic, structured and multisensory approach to reading and language, our students are able to make positive progress every semester they are with us.
- Item: Students identified with learning differences are 35% more likely to drop out of school. They make up 75% of unemployed people, 60% of people incarcerated, and 85% of juveniles who appear in court. And only 13% of students with learning differences in our nation’s schools attend four-year post-secondary schools.
Lawrence matters because the right educational experience can change a child’s trajectory, rescue their aspirations for higher education, and benefit not only the child, but our entire society. Lawrence matters because 96% of our graduates go to college and 76% of our graduates have matriculated to 4-year colleges.
It doesn’t matter so much what percentage of Lawrence students goes on to college, because matriculation is only one of many outcomes we track and pay close attention to. However, matriculation for students with learning differences in our nation is meaningful – if only because it is so woefully rare. What matters most is that when Lawrence seniors arrive at their high school graduation, they have the same choice that all of their peers enjoy. When they decide to go on with their education, they affirm that they view themselves as capable, successful learners. That’s a new ball game –so Lawrence is a game changer.
We matter—and we make a difference! We reverse the damaging drop out stats and we break the mold and alter the trends governing high school students with LD in the general education environment.
We do not permit children to fail, because we know the pattern of failure may continue long past the point where it matters in school and out into the adult life of a child and a community.
We matter because at Lawrence we regularly set and achieve a higher standard for students with learning differences than is currently achieved in general education environments. By doing so, we establish the precedent that if we can achieve these results others can too. Our students’ records of achievement inspire the hope that it can – and will – happen elsewhere.
At orientation we reminded our selves why we do this work. We reviewed our vision for the future: One day all students who learn differently will have the opportunity, encouragement and resources to fulfill their potential and benefit society.
At Lawrence we don’t practice ‘special education’ and we don’t talk about ‘disabilities’. Rather our teachers are educational specialists who match their curriculum and practice to the students in their classrooms.* At Lawrence differences are not disabilities.
At Lawrence students experience learning in way that changes not only their outlook on the future—but it changes the way they view their past as well. The German poet Goethe once wrote:
“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
At Lawrence School, we put children first because they matter most.
Summer is indeed over and we welcome a new year filled with the promise of opportunity for students who, due to past experiences, will never take their education for granted. It matters little that we cannot see far enough into the future to predict exactly how our work will now influence or change the world that is on the horizon. What matters is that we can see our work broadening the horizon for each of our students, each and every day.
Welcome to the new school year.
Email Lou Salza at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
*Many thanks to my colleague Bill Keeney from Delaware Valley Friends School for introducing this concept during a presentation at the LD School Leadership Summit in Cambridge, MA in July 2010.