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.