A sensory approach to literacy

School: With small classes, Norbel helps children with language disorders by teaching reading with visual and auditory aids.

January 20, 2002|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Can you write a Z for zebra?" asks instructional assistant Libby Feierstein as three pupils nearby write words and letters in shaving cream that has been sprayed on the desk.

Jordan Jacobson, 6, writes the word zoo instead. Julian Boyd, 5, and Meghan Hentzman, 8, write their names in the sweet-smelling foam as Feierstein offers advice and encouragement.

In a classroom next door for grades one through three, a girl writes letters in sand while other students put together sound cards to create words. The cards are marked with consonant blends, such as th or cr, as well as consonants and vowels.

These are some of the teaching methods used by the Norbel School in Elkridge, a private school for students with learning or language disabilities.

About 100 students in prekindergarten through grade nine attend the school, and during the next few years, grades 10 through 12 will be added, said Sharon Della Rose, the school's dean of curriculum.

Many of the students at Norbel are of above-average intelligence but struggle with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or dyslexia, a neurological disorder, which impairs the ability to recognize and comprehend written words.

Although Norbel's population has special needs, the school's methods and philosophies would benefit any student, says Eric M. Isselhardt, headmaster for 2 1/2 years.

"This is a school. Everything we do here is just good education," he said. The goal of the school is not to "cure" students, he explains, but to give them the best possible education.

Norbel opened with seven students in Baltimore's Temple Oheb Shalom about 20 years ago. In August, Norbel moved to Elkridge. Tuition at the school is $16,500 for those in the lower grades and $18,000 for those in high school, although about 30 percent of the students receive financial aid, Isselhardt said.

Small class size is one reason tuition is high, but Isselhardt believes that small classes make a big difference.

"You can't do what we do with 30 kids in a class," he said.

The school is committed to phonics in its reading curriculum, even when other approaches to reading instruction were more fashionable.

"We have never changed our philosophy that we must teach phonics and sight vocabulary," she said. "We have never taken phonics out of the mix."

Each classroom at Norbel has 12 children or fewer and is staffed with a teacher and instructional assistant. When a child is admitted to the school, he or she takes diagnostic tests and the assessment provides a snapshot of the child's strengths and weaknesses.

The assessment is fairly specific. In reading, for example, "Maybe [the child is] very literal" and doesn't "get the inferential piece," Della Rose said.

The evaluation also includes observations from the child's teacher over four to six weeks. After that interval, an educational plan is crafted. The plan is designed to be flexible and is keyed to mastery, so if children conquer one skill, they can move to the next lesson.

Students might meet with a speech and language pathologist, an occupational therapist or tutors to help achieve the goals of their educational plans. A reward system, in which students collect chips or points that they can redeem for goodies from pencils to field trips, provides incentive.

The school is housed in the former Elkridge Elementary School, which is undergoing renovation. When the work has been completed, the third floor will house the high school, and facilities such as a health and wellness center will be added. Isselhardt expects the renovations to be finished in about two years.

There are no lockers because students are expected to respect each other's property - there is no graffiti either, Isselhardt noted.

Classrooms are not divided by grade level, and are equipped not with desks but with tables that seat three or four and can be pushed together in various configurations. Classroom walls are covered with artwork and lessons. Most walls also include something called "Life's Rational Rules of the World," with advice such as, "Everybody has a boss, sometimes," and "Being loved is free ONLY for babies ... after that, you must give to get."

Another Norbel amenity is Isselhardt's miniature schnauzer, Casey, a certified therapy dog who recently received a diploma from Therapy Dogs International, a nonprofit organization that trains and certifies dogs who provide comfort and companionship.

Della Rose came to Norbel about 20 years ago, when her daughter attended kindergarten at the school, and is drawn to what she calls the school's "best practices" philosophy.

"We do what works," she said.

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