Teaching different learners

Highlands: After 10 years of capacity enrollment, a private school for learning-disabled children is ready to expand.

Education Beat

News from Harford County schools and colleges

September 18, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A.J. Ginley's learning disability led to academic struggles in public school and continuing battles between his mother and his reading teacher.

Lori Ginley decided she had to take a drastic step: The Bel Air resident took out a 20-year loan for $20,000 to pay tuition for her son to attend Highlands School, a private institution in Street designed for children with a range of learning disorders.

"If we didn't do this now, he'd slip through the cracks," Ginley said. "I realize that second grade is costing me more than four years at a state college, but he needs help now."

In growing numbers, parents of children with learning disabilities are turning to the Highlands School. The school is designed for children with potential for average to above-average achievement who exhibit difficulties in areas such as language processing, reading and spelling, speech, attention and concentration, short- and long-term memory, and study and social skills.

And after 10 years of capacity enrollment, school officials have launched an $8 million fundraising campaign called "Building on the Dream" to pay for a new 40,000-square-foot facility scheduled to open in fall 2007. It will be located on 18.5 acres on the former Boniface farm on Route 543.

The facility will be able to accommodate 125 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and include 13 classrooms, instructional centers, media, art and music centers, testing and therapy rooms, and a science lab.

About $2.2 million has been raised.

The new facility would represent a significant upgrade to the current school. To passers-by, Highlands is easy to miss: Nestled on the second floor of an old school building, it consists of just four classrooms.

But parents willing to pay the annual $19,500 tuition say Highlands can be the difference between learning and not learning. The school's reputation for helping children perform at grade level in an average of two years or less has been the catalyst for growth.

"What really appeals to me is that my son came here with few skills, and in as few as two years, he'll have the skills and confidence he needs to be mainstreamed into any private school we want to place him in," said Argiro Trintis of Abingdon.

The school's founders believed there was a need for such a facility, but they were unsure of the response they'd get and didn't want to commit to a permanent site without testing their program first.

"Since we started our program, we are seeing younger populations of students," said Beth Maahs-Hoagberg, who founded the school with Annette Maurits, Joanne Parrott and Vicki Whitaker. "For years, pediatricians have been telling parents their child is a late bloomer, and parents are starting to realize much sooner that this isn't the case, and they come to us for help earlier and earlier."

The school opened in 1996 with six students and the motto, "A child who learns differently needs to be taught differently." Today, the school has 38 students, including many from across Harford and Baltimore counties.

Eight-year-old Basilios Trintis came to the school with central auditory processing problems that didn't affect his language comprehension but made expression and articulation difficult.

"When my son started at Highlands he was doing math at a pre-K level," Argiro Trintis said. "By the end of his first year, he was at a second-grade level. I have always believed he had the ability to be successful academically; he just needed something like Highlands to learn how to be."

The average stay at the school is two years, though Basilios likely will attend for three years.

"It's so wonderful to know that when he is finally mainstreamed he will be where he needs to be academically," Argiro Trintis said.

The curriculum includes verbalization and visualization principles that are designed for children with dyslexia or other learning disabilities.

The school day is set up in 50-minute sessions: three in the morning and three in the afternoon. In the morning sessions, the second- and third-graders are partitioned off into groups of two or three, and have a certified teacher working with them. Then in the afternoon the partitions are removed, and the group size increases to 11 or 12.

Garrett Porte, a fifth-grader, said the small classes suit him fine.

"When I was at my other school, the class was too big and the teacher never had time to help me," said Garrett. "Here, I have a teacher to help me anytime I need her."

Another aspect of the school that parents and students find appealing are the multisensory lessons.

In the second- and third-grade classroom, each table has a pan with blue sand in it. Instead of using paper, the students write letters in the sand, giving them a tactile, visual and auditory learning experience.

Paula Carmody prepares lesson plans she calls "bus trips" in her social studies class. When she teaches the regions of the United States, she tapes a U.S. map on the floor. The students color the regions on paper maps and then the children jump on the regions on the floor map. Carmody also gives her students experiences they might have if they visited a state.

"When we study Maine, we have blueberries and sometimes even lobster when someone donates it to us," said Carmody.

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