Dis­cov­er­ing sanc­tu­ary for unique learn­ers

Dif­fer­ent teach­ing strate­gies can ac­count for any va­ri­ety of needs


Like any other par­ent, every evening after school Shoshana Sper­ling would ask her son, Henry, how his day went. And every day, her heart would break when she heard his re­sponse.

“He was com­ing home and say­ing, ‘I’m stupid. Why can’t they teach me?’ ” Sper­ling says. Al­though bright and well­be­haved, the 9-year-old dreaded go­ing to school. A di­ag­no­sis of dys­lexia meant keep­ing up with his class­mates was a strug­gle — for Henry, his teach­ers and his par­ents alike. Des­per­ate to help, Sper­ling hired a pri­vate tu­tor, paid for a psy­choe­d­u­ca­tional as­sess­ment and spent count­less hours re­search­ing re­sources on­line, but lit­tle seemed to help.

It wasn’t un­til she found the Clare­mont School through an ed­u­ca­tional con­sul­tant that ev­ery­thing changed. Al­though she and her hus­band were ini­tially wary of the pri­vate school model, she fell in love as soon as she walked through the Clare­mont’s doors.

“I said to my hus­band, ‘I want to go here.’ This is the place that we all want to learn,” Sper­ling says.

Ded­i­cated to learn­ers with dys­lexia in Grades 1 through 9, Clare­mont is an al­ter­na­tive school that fol­lows Or­ton-Gilling­ham, a method of teach­ing to help stu­dents hav­ing dif­fi­culty with read­ing, spell­ing and writ­ing. Chil­dren with at­ten­tive­ness is­sues are as­sisted with sen­sory breaks, while the school also of­fers speech and lan­guage ther­apy.

“In the reg­u­lar sys­tem, (dyslexic chil­dren) of­ten have a great deal of dif­fi­culty and frus­tra­tion ex­press­ing their in­tel­li­gence. In a small school like ours, we’re adapt­able and flex­i­ble,” di­rec­tor Evelyn Reiss says.

Adapt­abil­ity is per­haps what best de­fines to­day’s al­ter­na­tive schools. By break­ing away from stan­dard­ized cur­ricu­lum and the tra­di­tional class­room model, ed­u­ca­tors at these schools are bet­ter able to ex­plore dif­fer­ent teach­ing ped­a­go­gies in or­der to ac­count for a range of learn­ing styles and needs.

Fig­ur­ing out the best way to en­gage gifted high school stu­dents was what Me­gan Fox wanted to do when she founded the Dragon Academy in 2000. Lo­cated in the An­nex, it’s been called “a small, quirky pri­vate school for gifted non-con­form­ists.” It’s a de­scrip­tion that Fox doesn’t ob­ject to. What she does take is­sue with, how­ever, is the stereo­types as­so­ci­ated with be­ing la­belled an “al­ter­na­tive” school.

“When you say ‘al­ter­na­tive,’ you tend to think that every­body’s wear­ing Birken­stocks and the kids are do­ing what­ever in­ter­ests them,” Fox says. “I think that’s a mis­take, be­cause a 12- or 18-year-old wouldn’t know how to design their own cur­ricu­lum. You need some­one with their hand at the wheel who knows how to teach and ex­plore a sub­ject.”

“Peo­ple equate the al­ter­na­tive ap­proach with free­based school­ing. That’s mis­lead­ing . . . the child is not go­ing to be able to hide un­der just mem­o­riz­ing some­thing.” JEN­NIFER DEATHE WAL­DORF ACADEMY AD­MIS­SIONS MAN­AGER

At Dragon, classes — capped at 15 stu­dents — are struc­tured sim­i­lar to univer­sity sem­i­nars, with a fo­cus on dis­cus­sion and crit­i­cal anal­y­sis, rather than me­moriza­tion. And while field trips are a rare and much-an­tic­i­pated event at most schools, for the 65 teenagers that at­tend Dragon, head­ing to the mu­seum or to the sym­phony isn’t a spe­cial treat — it’s just part of their reg­u­lar school week.

“It’s an op­por­tu­nity to re­ally en­gage and not get­ting in a ‘pas­sive lis­ten­ing and putting your hand up’ kind of role,” Fox says. She says that this leads stu­dents to make more mean­ing­ful con­nec­tions with the ex­ist­ing On­tario cur­ricu­lum, which Dragon fol­lows.

How­ever, not all al­ter­na­tive schools ad­here to the pro­vin­cial cur­ricu­lum. The Wal­dorf Academy’s unique cur­ricu­lum and cor­re­spond­ing ped­a­gog­i­cal meth­ods have been de­vel­oped to align with the devel­op­men­tal stages of chil­dren from pre-kinder­garten to Grade 8.

Ad­mis­sions man­ager Jen­nifer Deathe says while some may ques­tion the Wal­dorf method — there’s a strong em­pha­sis on the arts and na­ture, and chil­dren cre­ate their own text­books — it al­lows stu­dents to go deeper into the ma­te­rial.

“Peo­ple equate the al­ter­na­tive ap­proach with free­based school­ing. That’s mis­lead­ing; this is ac­tu­ally more aca­demic be­cause the child is not go­ing to be able to hide un­der just mem­o­riz­ing some­thing — they’re re­ally go­ing to be chal­lenged,” she says.

“We want this to be a sanc­tu­ary for learn­ing, imag­i­na­tion and tak­ing risks.”

For Henry, mean­while, the op­por­tu­nity to at­tend al­ter­na­tive school has pro­vided just that — a safe place to ex­plore his po­ten­tial. In ad­di­tion to its tai­lored method­olo­gies, Clare­mont of­fers its stu­dents a sense of com­mu­nity. “Every­body is like them, so they don’t have the stigma of be­ing the only one to put up their hand,” Reiss says.

Once afraid of go­ing to school, Henry now doesn’t want to leave at the end of the day.

“You can see him light up,” Sper­ling says. “When he comes home and I ask how was school, he says, ‘Momma, you don’t need to keep ask­ing. It’s al­ways awe­some.’ ”


Henry Sper­ling, 9, and his teacher, Liz Noble, read to­gether at Clare­mont School.


Henry Sper­ling at­tends Clare­mont School, an al­ter­na­tive school ded­i­cated to help­ing chil­dren with dys­lexia.

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