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On Learning Differently

When one size does not fit all, there are many school options



I’ve always had a particular disdain for anything that claims to be “one size fits all.” At just over five feet, it’s rare for me that the tag proves true. Hence my lifelong (read: fruitless) quest for the perfectly-proportioned poncho. The same can be said regarding the current state of our educational system. It is clear that all children do not learn at the same pace, nor using the same methodologies. Fitting into the conventional system is especially challenging for kids with learning issues.

Fortunately, there are many local schools that are a welcome alternative and allow these children, and their families, a path to success, happiness and peace of mind. Language-based learning issues, dyslexia, ADHD, processing, executive functioning. Many of us have heard these terms, but seldom do we understand the severity of their impact on a child in a mainstream classroom. Frustration can reach a fever pitch and confidence often wanes. These kids in crisis inevitably bloom when placed in a situation where their challenges are addressed head on. 

The highly-regarded Windward School in White Plains has educated children specifically with dyslexia and language-based issues for several decades. Windward parent Amy Gottesfeld of Goldens Bridge is clear about the school’s rigors, as well as their resulting payoff. Gottesfeld explains, “The program is all about maximizing each child’s potential, so my girls work and work hard. But they really feel their accomplishments. Everyone wants to be good at their job.” 

Gottesfeld’s daughter Mia, age 11, says, “Windward pretty much changed my life. When the teachers teach me I can understand. There used to be books that kids were reading and I wanted to be able to read them too. I just finished ‘Because of Winn Dixie.’ I never knew I could do that.”

Mia’s experience isn’t unusual (for starters, her sister Rachel is a Windward fifth grader). The emphasis on independence is a common thread and a key component to growth. With kids less reliant on parents to fight battles on their behalf, as well as provide extra homework support, the family dynamic can shift for the better.

Ellen Best of Pound Ridge whose daughter Sarah attended Winston Prep in Norwalk explains, “We were instructed to not be involved with schoolwork at home. What a relief! No more reminding or doing reviewing ourselves. Now, seven years later, she has graduated from college, has a job, and can advocate for herself.”

Other nearby school options that address a wide variety of learning issues include Villa Maria in Stamford and Eagle Hill in Greenwich. According to Lucy Pritzker of Educational Consultants Unlimited in Katonah, there is also a growing trend toward “micro-schools.” These are, yes, very small communities that involve one-on-one learning. Fusion Academy, a nationwide network with a presence in Greenwich, Fairfield, and White Plains, offers students this kind of individualized education.

In the “never say never” category is boarding school. For many overwhelmed parents this can be an overwhelming concept, but often one that provides the right immersive experience for development. Forman School in Litchfield has all the trappings of a traditional boarding school (classic New England campus? Check. Competitive athletics? Check.), as well as staff and resources in place to address the special issues of its students.

Forman head of school Adam Man says, “If you struggle with learning, it doesn’t stop after class is over. We have people around the clock to help our kids. There’s a trust that develops.” In our over-educated, over-scheduled and over-everythinged part of the country, a shift in expectations may also need to accompany the shift in schooling. But a return to the basics could serve us all well. Pritzker, who helps families navigate the school selection process says, “It’s a nice treat when I have a parent who says, ‘I don’t care where or if my kid goes to college, I just want him to be happy.’”

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