Headmaster’s Thoughts – August 2008

My wife tells me that very few people read my thoughts and even fewer read my summer comments. Jayme’s view is that most of our students and their parents are away in summer and, in any case, since Edline does not apply when school is not in session, our website is comparatively free from much perusal.


This being so, perhaps I can use this quiet time to discuss an issue that is rarely confronted in a frank manner: learning differences. When Jayme and I started York in 1969, the words dyscalculia and dyslexia were virtually unknown. We had heard of them but, in hindsight, did not really know how widespread and common to so many students these problems were. What we did know, and learned even more quickly after the school opened, was that a few bright students, that is to say students who could intelligently discuss a complex abstract idea, occasionally presented problems when tested about exactly those same ideas. Their performance on tests did not match their performance in discussion.


This disconnect, sometimes mild and sometimes very noticeable, between verbal and written performance, seemed to be responsive to small classroom instruction and an understanding faculty who would test in a variety of methods. And so our regular school (regular in the sense that we were not a Special Ed school) seemed to be particularly successful with students whose intelligence was clearly there but had some difficulty in demonstrating that intelligence on paper. And our school grew with some super performing students and with some whose performance really began when they came to York. As this year’s student welcoming speaker so eloquently said at graduation, she had never received above a “C’ before she started high school at York, where she got her first “A” and realized that maybe she was, in fact, smart. She was accepted “early decision” to Brown.


In 1997, we moved to our present building and found that instead of seventeen thousand square feet we had forty thousand. What would we do with all this space? Our reading teacher came up with the solution. There were five students who were failing out of the school because they could not handle the workload. All five seemed smart but, for a number of reasons, could not make it. She suggested that she take on these five. She would see them as a group every morning before school for three quarters of an hour and every afternoon after school for three quarters of an hour, and she would see them individually twice a week. The goal was to give them the strategies to deal with whatever learning issue they had. At the time, our Principal suggested that the name of the program be called “JumpStart,” and so it began.


Last year, one of our JumpStart students (he had been in JumpStart for two years) was accepted “early action” to Harvard. He was not the first JumpStart student to graduate to the Ivy League (one of whom had been in JumpStart all the way through York). Now that there are a hundred children in JumpStart (and more students wanting to get into it than we have room in the program), one could say, looking back, that its success was a natural outgrowth of the school’s philosophy of trying to help every student succeed by teaching to their strengths and helping them overcome their weaknesses.


At the end of each year, the JumpStart teachers go through each student in the program with a view to writing to the parents to say that JumpStart is no longer needed. Roughly a third of our JumpStart students get that letter. Another third gets a letter that says that JumpStart is vital if their child is to succeed in the next year at York, and the final third get a letter that acknowledges the benefits that JumpStart would give their child but leaves the choice of whether or not the child should stay in the program up to the parents. For the record, most of that last third stay in the program.


The members of the JumpStart faculty are always certified by the State in Special Ed with the appropriate degrees, and they always maintain close communication with the student and his or her parents. Five years ago when we instituted Edline (a program in which each teacher’s grades for the past week are put out on the school’s website for the parents to receive by using their password), the JumpStart part was expanded so that the JumpStart teacher wrote a paragraph or more about what had been achieved the past week and what the goals were for the next week. In every case, the parents were encouraged to e-mail their comments.


The expanded JumpStart program required more space (it gobbled up our extra square feet and more), and we hired a distinct faculty to accommodate the need. This year, the JumpStart program will be housed a few doors down from the school, and JumpStart students will be able to spend more time on their school work under supervision than ever before.


All of which goes back to those early days when we started the school. I suppose my point is that it is critical in any teaching institution that the leaders be acutely aware of what works and willing to make the necessary changes to adopt the successful strategies. Over two-thirds of our students are not in (and do not need to be in) JumpStart. But all of our students need, and I believe get, great teaching, and I hope that great teaching is the real hallmark of our school. Some do need extra support and we have an obligation to provide it.


In a similar way, we also had, and continue to have, some very, very bright students who need extra challenge. They also need individual attention to ensure they are being stretched at York, and for them we devised an honors program called, by its lead administrator, Paul Sturm, the Scholars Program. The Scholars Program is somewhat similar to JumpStart in that it applies primarily before and after school. Starting in the second quarter of eighth grade, our most diligent and talented students are challenged by members of the faculty who have asked to teach them a subject area in which that faculty member is keenly interested. I teach the eighth and tenth grade scholars “Topics in Philosophy.” To be particularly bright is as much a learning difference as to have dyslexia, and it can be a lonely learning difference. We hope our Scholars classes, which usually average around six students, bring a sense of shared challenge to these gifted students.


As you might guess, the Scholars Program also requires space and a particular type of faculty member who is qualified in a way that is not as easily definable as with those who teach JumpStart.


I also want to say that a student can be in both JumpStart and the Scholars Program. I have had several JumpStart students in my Scholars classes (including the Harvard undergrad).


Well, there… I have discussed something that has a little meat on it. The majority of my thoughts are more inconsequential. Perhaps the most important point of all this is my conviction that the schooling of children is not a process that works well in a large scale operation. I believed this when Jayme and I started York Prep in 1969, and I believe it even more strongly forty years later. As we have learned more about the individual needs of each child, we have learned that if their education is to be a successful experience, big operations, large schools, just are not suited for the job.


As ever, if you wish to respond, my e-mail is rstewart@yorkprep.org , but it is summer, and Jayme is probably right, few people are reading. Ah, well! September, with all the explosive energy of the new school year, is about to burst upon us, and my thoughts will hopefully become more amusing and, perhaps, even readable.



Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org 

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