Cracking the Code
At The New Community School students learn how to turn dyslexia around.
Seemingly, this is a typical setting at a typical school. But here, the students are learning under unusual conditions. It's a condition that runs through every lesson plan, lunch break and classroom exercise: dyslexia.
This is the New Community School, the only secondary school in Virginia and one of a handful in the nation that teaches remedial skills and college preparation for dyslexic students. Students come here so they can learn how to learn, compete with their peers and eventually manage in an academic environment on their own. Their obstacle is significant, because they can't always trust numbers and letters. On their way to a student's brain, such symbols can dance around.
But New Community has found a way around that, say students and parents, through a highly structured multisensory approach, an adherence to the basics, a combination of teaching theories and strong, small classes. Since its diminutive beginning in 1974 with 24 students and borrowed church classrooms, New Community has reached an all-time-high enrollment of 101.
As one student puts it, "They know how to teach you."
Albert Einstein was dyslexic. So were George Burns and Winston Churchill. Like them, kids at New Community have an average to above-average intellectual potential, but they need extra help with and different methods for learning to read, write and spell. Dyslexia is defined as a specific language disability involving an unusual degree of difficulty with reading, writing and spelling, despite instruction that is ordinarily effective for most children. While their peers are fully reading, writing fluently and spelling correctly, it's as if dyslexic students were never given the secret code, and so they scramble letters and struggle to read. As they are left behind in a conventional school setting, their self-esteem plummets and parents seek help.
That's how students end up at New Community. Some come directly from Riverside School, a private elementary school on Richmond's South Side that specializes in teaching dyslexic children. Others hear about the school from parents who are grateful for its existence, or local public and private schools refer them. Some families have relocated from as far away as Texas, New York and Wisconsin to be here.
Among a sampling of 11th-graders, one was diagnosed in third grade, did her best in the public system but was not successful. Another learned she was dyslexic just last year, as she struggled in 10th grade at a parochial high school. And another has a long list of previous schools, none of which really knew what to do with him, he says.
There was a time when educators figured that if a student hadn't learned to read by middle school, they weren't going to learn to read at all. In the early 1970s many educators thought that a student who couldn't learn to read must be emotionally disturbed or mentally retarded. But the experience of Head of School Julia Ann Greenwood showed her otherwise.
Greenwood grew up in a family of teachers, graduated from John Marshall High School and in 1967 earned her bachelor's degree in psychology at William & Mary in psychology. Then she moved to Huntington, W.Va., with her husband, Mike, and earned her master's degree in psychology at Marshall University. By 1970, the couple had a daughter, and they had moved back to Richmond.
Greenwood, at home with her daughter, pondered the future of her career. Her mother, Jean Dickinson, was a psychology professor at University of Richmond at the time and she told Greenwood about some research she was working on.
"She told me about a small subset of kids who were very intelligent but had very low reading and writing scores," Greenwood recalls. Such students exhibiting symptoms of what is now considered dyslexia were considered to have minimal brain damage. Once diagnosed that way, they were labeled as hopeless in the classroom.
"As my mother began to identify these kids in her testing, she said to me, 'If you really want a puzzle, why don't you work with them?' " Greenwood says. "I was fascinated by a visual perception concept. … that two people with the same vision could look at something and see two completely different things."
Greenwood began tutoring such students, with permission from their parents, using a new teaching method called the Orton-Gillingham approach. The parents were "fairly desperate to have someone help them," Greenwood says. The approach, developed by a neurologist and a teacher, is "a highly structured, alphabetic, phonetic program using more than one sense," she says. "It opens the windows of perception to help make associations between symbols and sound." It helps students process symbols correctly.
The tutoring enabled Greenwood to closely examine the pieces of what she often refers to as the puzzle of dyslexia, and it gave her the experience that would later enable her to make a career out of solving the puzzle for hundreds of children and their parents. "It's about finding out what they don't know, what they do know — and then matching your instruction," she says. "Adolescence is not the time to give up on basic skills. It's the time to really make sure they have them. These kids can learn these things, and learning them can open their lives. It requires intensity and a lot of practice, but it's worth it."
In the mid-1970s, elementary-school teachers were telling Anne and George Little that their son had a behavior problem. "He got to fifth grade at Westhampton School, and he couldn't read," Anne Little says. "No one understood what dyslexia was."
In the early 1970s, they enrolled him in the Grace Arents House in Oregon Hill that, along with the Stonewall Jackson School in the Fan, was one of Richmond's only two options at the time for children with dyslexia. At Grace Arents the staff had been trained in the Orton-Gillingham teaching method, widely regarded as the most successful way to approach language learning disabilities. Their son learned to read quickly, Anne Little says. "I remember him coming home and saying, 'I can read!' " They were delighted.
But the programs at those schools did not extend past the sixth grade.
"There was a group of parents and teachers who wouldn't accept that," Greenwood says. So in 1974, the Littles — along with Alan and Laura Siff, Bob and Pat Horgan, and Elizabeth and Stuart Schmidt, also parents of children with dyslexia — decided to start their own school.
They formed a committee, found teachers, consulted with a broad group of professionals and experts, and started to raise money.
But they needed a place to put the school, so they approached St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. "We had about $20,000 in seed money so we couldn't do much," Anne Little says. St. Stephen's gave us four rooms in the parish hall, … On Fridays, our teachers had to pack up everything into closets so the rooms could be used for Sunday school We opened with 24 students and several of the teachers who'd been at the city program."
"How a group of parents thought they could form a school, I don't know," she says, laughing. "I look at the school today and think: How have we gotten here? You know what they say about where angels fear to tread, fools rush in…."
But the school gained ground. By the next fall, New Community had 50 applicants and a new home at Ginter Park Baptist Church. They stayed there for six years, went through a few changes in leadership and in 1977 named Greenwood as head of school. She has guided it through two decades of growth.
With Greenwood in place, the school looked hard at its first couple of years. "We were concerned with staying focused on our mission," Greenwood says. "We knew who we were, and we set out to begin melding the college preparatory curriculum with the remedial needs of reading, writing and spelling. We had to develop a program that addressed both needs. And that still is a tricky thing to do. How do you offer a college preparatory program to kids who don't read, write and spell very well?"
Building on the strengths her predecessors brought to the school — in particular, noted educator and expert in dyslexia Alice Ansara — Greenwood helped create a winning formula. It's a combination of language fundamentals — time teachers spend one-on-one with students in reading, writing and spelling — and a conventional curriculum of such subjects as history, science and math. Teachers are prepared to use a variety of approaches to help kids decode language, without which all learning would be stonewalled. "Our belief is that if we look hard enough," Greenwood says, "we'll find handles for learning that we can grab hold of."
In 1981, the school grabbed hold of a permanent home, too — a spacious house on Hermitage Road. Since then, the school has expanded from one house to others surrounding it, often making do with whatever square footage they could scrounge up. There is no institutional-style building, but rather a cluster of four homes and outbuildings converted into classrooms and offices. The nearly 9-acre campus is connected by green grassy areas and new sidewalks.
The school has built a new gym, and carved a level playing field out of a hill. Every square inch of the original house, Massey Hall, is being used for classrooms, a library and a computer lab. Tiny little rooms no bigger than closets — which perhaps formerly they were — serve as language-fundamental meeting spaces for a teacher and two students.
The school's latest acquisition, this past year, was the home of an elderly couple who, despite the school functioning all around them, continued to maintain a beautiful vegetable garden as if they were living in rural privacy. The couple's Colonial blue carpet and paint and bird-dog draperies still hang amid the computers and files of New Community's business and development staff. Another home purchased by the school houses the art room and nurse's office. In a former doctor's office that faces Westbrook Avenue, New Community's middle-school grades occupy recently renovated space.
After their morning break, eight sixth- and seventh-graders are sitting on the carpeted floor of their classroom with their teacher, Deborah Butterworth, playing a word game. Similar to the age-old game of concentration, the game entails matching words up — but this version has a twist. Players must identify parts of speech and whether the nouns are common, proper, concrete or abstract. The game packs an additional punch that assists dyslexic students, and it is a perfect example of the multisensory approach the school uses; it boosts memory and offers repetition that is essential. There is much laughter and fun being had with this hands-on approach that gets the kids out from behind their desks and interacting. And it's clear from the success of the players making matches that they're catching on. In fact, some of them may be able to return to their old schools before reaching graduation at New Community.
With enough remediation, Greenwood says, a child should be able to move back into mainstream schools and succeed. Some students leave after a couple of years, but for others, the intensive reading, writing and spelling instruction needs to continue.
"It's tough to do the basics in an ordinary secondary setting," she says. "In elementary, you are learning basic skills. When you get to middle school and get into other areas like social studies and science, schools assume you already have the basic skills. In high school, you are expected to have learned all the skills you'll need to be independent academically. If you have never gotten the basics, you can't function."
The average stay at New Community is a little more than three years. And the kids are tested yearly. There are six kinds of reading tests, Greenwood says "What we're looking for is to have the skill level to match their intelligence level, so when the children leave here, they can be placed with peers and be able to compete."
But obstacles such as an inability to process information quickly, and foreign language requirements — notoriously difficult for dyslexics to meet — can often make it hard to make the switch back. Plus, Greenwood says, "The teamwork that surrounds them here is the secret." Without the support of a group of professionals who are trained to know what these kids need, they must take more responsibility themselves to seek out help. Not that that day doesn't come eventually in New Community. Indeed, by the time New Community students reach their junior and senior years, their teachers are emphasizing independence.
That's important, especially if students have their sights on college. There, they will have to create their own network of support. Many of the college-bound seek out schools that have a framework conducive to accommodating learning differences. Ultimately, Greenwood says, students need teachers who respect learning differences but have high expectations.
"New Community did a very good job of being college preparatory," says Sue Melzig, an educational consultant whose son Doug graduated from New Community in 2001.
Now a college sophomore at Davis & Elkins College, Doug Melzig arrived at college this fall and dashed to the bookstore to stock up on texts and spirals. But returning to his dorm room, he didn't just write his name on every purchase. He color-coded them and organized them neatly on a shelf. It was one of the small coping techniques he learned at New Community. Melzig learned how he learns best and was able to juggle a number of commitments. He plays Division II soccer, has joined a fraternity and received both academic and leadership scholarships.
Paul Gerber, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's school of education, specializes in learning disabilities and serves on New Community's professional advisory board. He says the school helps the transition to college by giving students a good sense of self. It teaches them "how to think about thinking about their dyslexia."
Craig Wilkinson, who graduated in 1981 from New Community, recalls the day his parents took him to Ferrum College to begin his freshman year. "I was scared," he admits. He told his parents, "I'm going to see you in a month, because I'm going to fail out."
But he remembered what he learned at New Community, he says: "The first thing I did in every class was go up to the teacher and tell them about my needs, ask about office hours, ask if they'd extend times given to take tests, basically ask 'What is your policy?' " He sought the help of the school's academic resource center and ended up working with a professor to better the services of the facility. He graduated, earned his M.B.A at the University of Richmond and now works as a market analyst for Trigon.
Recently, Wilkinson was named to the New Community's board of trustees. It's clear he has no trouble making pitches. "The school will always have my support," he says. "The cost of the education may be expensive, but not having it creates much more long-term expense."
Beyond bricks and mortar, there is considerable expense to running a school with a student-teacher ratio of 4 to 1. There is an endowment of $900,000, which helps pay for annual operating costs of $1,824,200 per year. And tuition this school year is $16,100 to $17,100. But the school designates, and raises, more than $200,000 annually to help students who demonstrate financial need.
In some cases, though, fundraising doesn't even require a solicitation. Alumnus Craig Wilkinson has close friends who give to the annual fund just because the school made such a difference in his life.
As in its beginnings, parents are a significant part of New Community's exisitence. George McVey, president of the school's board of trustees and a former head of St. Christopher's School, touts parent loyalty. "They raise about $250,000 a year, and that's a lot for a school that size." He credits the founders with setting the groundwork. "They had people in the beginning who were such believers they wouldn't take no for an answer. They had a vision, they kept pushing, and what they've achieved has been wonderful."
Greenwood is optimistic that will continue — despite the costs. "We don't enjoy the kind of deep pockets that other schools have," she says, "but that will come."
After 20 years here, what keeps Greenwood interested? "My husband was a little surprised I ended up staying in the same place," she says, laughing. "But what he knows, and I know, is that the school has been developing and changing all along. The trick for me has been staying ahead of the game. There's always something around the bend … you're always reaching for something that was previously out of reach. That makes it an exciting place. …It's stimulating to watch kids spread their wings and fly on their own."