Interviewed by Emily Freehling
The Marshall School was founded in 2006 by Christina Carson, an educator who saw a need for a school where students could escape the anxiety she was seeing them experience as they tried to memorize specific answers to questions on the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. Instead, the Spotsylvania-based Marshall School focuses on helping children build the learning and thinking strategies needed for a lifetime of learning and real-world success. The school’s smaller environment and customized learning programs are a particularly good fit for children diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, central auditory processing disorders and non-verbal learning disabilities.
But as her school has grown, Carson has found that the “common-sense” approach the Marshall School takes to education benefits all children. As our February Expert, she shares her knowledge about learning challenges, the Marshall School’s different approach to meeting learning needs, and how that approach can change the way we think about our own children’s school environments.
Q: Why did you start the Marshall School?
I didn’t set out in the beginning to run a school. I set out to solve real problems I was seeing as a special education teacher in a public school. I was frustrated that my students with learning disabilities were being passed along to the next grade level year after year because they could pass a state test that was allowed to be read to them. Nobody cared whether they could read—as long as they chose the right answers on this test, they were ready for the next grade. Knowing that these kids were moving through the system without gaining critical life skills sent me home in tears almost every night.
I researched and went through training on specific brain-based strategies that could help these students overcome their obstacles to learning—but I was told these strategies would be impossible to implement in my school. Desperate to help students in this situation, I opened Learning Enhancement Centers in 2003. Learning Enhancement Centers takes a specialized, brain-based approach to helping children learn. We quickly realized that many of our students needed more than just a few hours a week of help. They needed a structured learning environment—in other words, a school. The Marshall School opened in 2006 as a place where students could come for a year or two and catch up, but our families have found our approach so effective that most of them stay with us, and we are now a K-12 school.
Q: Is your school only for students with learning challenges?
While our program is a good fit for children diagnosed with dyslexia, ADD, auditory processing disorders and learning disabilities, what we really are is a private school with a common-sense approach and a universally designed program. What this means is that all the little changes that can help an individual learn better—things like special seating, getting to use a word processor, having extra time on a test—are available to everyone as needed.
In a typical school, these features are considered “accommodations.” But everybody learns differently, and learning what truly helps you perform better is a major part of becoming a successful learner. We have built our school so that anyone can access these kinds of features, and we work one-on-one with our students to help them discover the strategies that will help them succeed. While we serve special needs students very well, our approach is for any student or family who is looking for something different from the fast-paced race to teach the entire SOL test that we see today in the public schools.
Q: What distinguishes your approach to learning?
Social skills are a major focus of our program, side-by-side with the academics. We work on teaching students to genuinely listen and communicate, and we help them build a mindset that they are not victims and that they can advocate for themselves and choose how they respond to what is going on around them. We equip them with strategies to handle stress and overcome challenges. This social-emotional growth is just as important to me as the academics. A balance of both is really important to a child’s success. We start this off every day with our morning meeting, where all of the students gather with their teacher. They interact, get to know each other and learn about strategies they will use throughout their day as they engage with the academic material.
Q: What do students like about your school?
In testimonials, our students say things like, “Our teachers care about us,” “I have friends,” “I feel safe at this school.” A second grader once said to me, “You don’t push us through. You make sure I understand it before you move me forward.”
It’s the sense of community, and the sense that they are being understood as individual learners with individual needs.
Q: How do you build community?
All of the Marshall School teachers and administrators model the behavior we want to see in the ways we talk to each other and to our students. We greet each child at the front door each day, and we sit face-to-face in daily our morning meetings to do a check-in with each student before we start to work. It’s also details like requiring that students park their phones when they are with us. Technology can be a tool to aid learning, but we also want our kids to set up healthy boundaries with personal technology and devices.
There are specific reasons students can access their phones if needed, but we also coach them through that process to make sure grabbing the phone isn’t just a default. We have an hour-long lunch and recess period, which is a time to decompress. While we will let kids access their phones for part of this period, we always make sure they take some time to just sit, be quiet, interact with their classmates and just reflect. We encourage this same behavior of our staff. It’s so important right now for all of us to learn to connect to others and to ourselves before reaching for a technology fix.
Another way we build community is by cleaning the school as a team. We teach students how to do the cleaning, take out the garbage, do the dishes and clean the bathroom. If you are part of a community, it is your responsibility to help, and we think this is an important lesson. It also promotes teamwork and pride in the school.
Q: Your school has grown tremendously since you opened in 2006. What do you think is driving that growth?
For one thing, we’ve done a better job of telling our story to the community. But from my interaction with parents, I think most people are not happy with the way education is going in our society. We read stories about how American students are behind, and our reaction is to move everything down—meaning we try to teach kids to read at age 4, when that really isn’t developmentally appropriate. We also see this in middle and high school with math, where schools are pushing courses like algebra 2 onto younger and younger students. We are creating problems because we are pushing these concepts down to younger ages instead of giving students a space to progress and having the confidence that they will all get there at different times.
What sets the Marshall School apart is that we don’t move our students to the next level until they are ready and have the foundational skills to be successful with the material. I don’t care how old you are—if you don’t have basic arithmetic down yet, you have no use for some of the higher-level math classes. We’ll work on the basics and move you up when you get there. As kids get into high school, we also work individually on the specific skills they will need in the careers they want to pursue. This is common sense: Serve the learner; one size does not fit all.
Check out FredParent’s interview with Christina Carson of the Marshall School. Learn more at themarshallschool.org.