A new chance for dyslexic children

July 29, 1994|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,Sun Staff Writer

Hillary Leech is a bright, articulate 9-year-old with aspirations of being a lawyer and writer. But she used to call herself the dumbest kid in class.

"I said a word wrong while I was reading. Everybody started to laugh and call me the class clown," she said, recalling her second-grade year at the McDonogh School. That humiliating experience came after she already had repeated first grade and switched schools.

Discovering the cause of Hillary's poor performance -- dyslexia, a learning disability -- was only the first step in helping her through school. She still found second grade and a year of home schooling difficult.

But now, the Leeches and about a dozen other families with similar stories to tell believe they have a solution to the schooling problem -- creating a new private school in Baltimore for dyslexic children. And little more than a year after they began planning, their dream, the Odyssey School, is nearly complete.

For the past several weekends, parents have painted classrooms bright blue and yellow in the cozy, brown-shingled school building at the corner of Beechdale Road and Roland Avenue in Roland Park. They're interviewing potential students -- 18 have enrolled so far, and they're shooting for 30. And when the building's previous owner, the School for Contemporary Education, moves out in August, they will haul in desks, computers and library books.

Meanwhile, state officials are working with Odyssey parents and faculty to help the school meet Department of Education requirements for nonpublic schools, agency spokesman Larry Chamblin said. He doesn't expect any obstacles to the school's planned Sept. 8 opening.

Parents hope that Odyssey's teaching methods and small classes will have a dramatic impact on students with dyslexia, who may have difficulty reading, spelling, understanding spoken words, or expressing themselves verbally or in writing. A dyslexic child, for example, may write "p" for "b" or confuse left and right.

Teaching dyslexic children "requires a lot more time than the current [public and private school] curriculum allows to teach a certain skill," said Odyssey's director of education, Catharine Rommel.

For example, in a normal reading lesson, children might read a story, add then discuss its vocabulary and plot, she said. Dyslexic students may need to learn sounds before moving on to words, or to a story.

Baltimore City schools can provide special small-group teaching sessions for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, said Louise Fink, who supervises special education programs. But the system does not provide individual tutoring or separate schools for dyslexic students, she said.

Odyssey parents said they wanted more for their children than either public or most private schools could provide.

One option, the private Owings Mills-based Jemicy School, which primarily teaches children with dyslexia, had more applicants on its waiting list than the 140 students enrolled.

Last summer, Jemicy administrators told the parents of children on the waiting list that expansion was unlikely, suggesting that they start their own school for children with dyslexia, according to Jemicy director Stephen Wilkins.

"We were pretty dumbfounded when they suggested it," said Lara McLaughlin, one of those parents and Odyssey's admissions director.

Once they were over the shock, a handful of parents banded together to raise money and search for a location. Despite their lack of experience in starting a school, the parents were &L determined to open the doors in September.

"We were desperate to find a solution for our children," said Bernard Bohager, vice chairman of Odyssey's board of trustees. He said his dyslexic son once told him, "It's not that I'm lazy, and it's not that I'm not trying; I don't learn like the other kids."

Piece by piece, the school has come together. Members of the board of trustees, including parents, have donated about $20,000 over the past year, according to the board's treasurer, John Tompkins.

The school site was purchased for $315,000, with the School for Contemporary Education holding the mortgage. Mr. Tompkins said he is unsure how much renovations will cost; Odyssey's annual tuition of $12,500 will cover most of the school's &r operating budget of approximately $300,000.

And, since April, the school has hired A. Hamilton Bishop, the former headmaster of Boys' Latin School; Mrs. Rommel; four full-time teachers; and three part-time teachers. Mrs. Rommel and two teachers left Jemicy to join Odyssey.

The school will feature average class sizes of seven or eight children. Students will meet daily with tutors in smaller groups.

"The place is not going to look like an institution," Mrs. Rommel said. "It's going to be a happy place."

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