Odyssey School pushes toward expansion

Facility for dyslexics readies for big move

April 19, 2000|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

What started as a dream has become an adventure for the Odyssey School in Baltimore.

The school for dyslexic children was organized by parents six years ago and opened in a four-story Roland Park mansion. There were 40 pupils and a dozen teachers. Today, those numbers have doubled. Science equipment is crammed into closets, meetings are held in a foyer and sports events are played on fields at other schools.

Every year, the school turns away more applicants.

"To see the sign on this building, I used to cry every time I drove by here," said Lara McLaughlin, one of the founding parents who now teaches at the school. "We begged and borrowed everything in the beginning. Anything else was given to us. They told us it would take us two years. We did it in a little more than a year. It's amazing that any of this has happened.

"Now we're starting a new adventure."

After years of searching for a more spacious home, Odyssey School will move to a 42-acre site in Green Spring Valley as early as September 2001 thanks to a $2.8 million donation from a group of 19 private investors. The money will be used to purchase the land.

"What started off as a quiet little school in a house has come a long way," said Gordon R. Jones, vice president of the school's board of trustees.

Details of the transaction are not being divulged to allow the members of Greenspring Investment Group LLC to remain anonymous. However, Jones said he helped talk the investors into making the donation.

Jones came up with the idea after learning that St. Timothy's School in Stevenson wanted to sell about 80 acres to boost its endowment. Developers wanted to build 63 homes on the property, but neighbors opposed the idea.

"It took serious convincing," said Jones, whose solution of donating part of the land to Odyssey School and using the other portion to build 19 luxury homes in a gated community pleased all three parties. "But we get an idea, and we just do it."

School officials say the next step is raising about $6 million for the expansion. The project, which could start in September, promises athletic fields and a house-like structure containing a gymnasium, more classrooms, a community room and library.

"We're just overwhelmed by applications," said Headmaster Brad Rogers. "This is a school filled with poets, surgeons and architects who can't read when they come to us. We recognize that they're incredibly talented kids who learn a different way. But the space we're working with now limits our teaching ability.

"Here, when our students learn, we want them to read it, build it, sing it, act it out and draw it," said Rogers, who hopes to have 70 more pupils and 50 more teachers in the school.

For now, the school will have to make do with cramped quarters. On the second floor of the Roland Avenue building, 11 computers and almost as many children occupy what used to be a nursery. The hallway is filled with artwork, book bags, coats and equipment. Walk-in closets are used as tutoring rooms.

School officials acknowledge that teaching dyslexic children requires expensive, sophisticated instruction. Parents pay $17,200 a year for each child.

In return, pupils get individual attention. The school has one instructor for every three pupils. Material is covered repetitively. Pupils are taught how to organize, memorize and pace themselves. They are taught to pinpoint their abilities and weaknesses.

That type of instruction has made all the difference for most pupils.

In a corner room on the second floor, pliers, a tube cutter and drills are spread out in front of 11-year-olds Robby Miller and Matthew Demitt. Reading from an instruction manual, they have rewired an engine and cut out templates to build a robot.

For these children, learning before there was the Odyssey School meant hours of frustration. For Robby, it often meant breaking into tears when he couldn't keep up with his classmates in preschool.

"You can't really tell it's there," Robby said of his dyslexia. "You just work hard to overcome it. It sometimes made me feel like I was stupid. Now I know better. I'm not stupid. I learn at my own pace."

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