by Brenda Sapanghila
We‘re thrilled to have Christina Carson from Thurgood Marshall School and Leadership Academy as February’s expert! This amazing school has such a touching story and purpose behind it.
Do you mind sharing a little of your background?
I always knew I wanted to be a special education teacher. In college, I was taught that students with learning disabilities would always have them. “That’s how they are. That’s how they will always be … they will have to learn how to deal with it.”
We didn’t learn how to “fix” the disabilities. We just learned how to accommodate and modify. For example, if they couldn’t read, we would read it to them.
When I taught at the elementary school level, I believed when my students went to middle school their teachers would continue to work on fixing their weaknesses. I had no idea that where they were in their reading level when they left me — in fifth grade — was likely where they would be when they graduated high school. It was heartbreaking.
I taught sixth grade my last year of teaching. I had 17 students with learning disabilities that were reading between a kindergarten and a fourth-grade level. I had 45 minutes per day to teach them to read. The focus was on getting them prepared to pass the state test. They were allowed to have their tests read to them. No one really cared if they could read, just that they could pass the test. My students were bright and could pass the test as long as it was read to them.
The weight of knowing I wasn’t going to be with them when they went to take their driver’s test or fill out a job application was overwhelming. Who cared if they could pass the test if they didn’t have the critical skill of reading? I came home crying almost every night. There had to be something more that I could do.
I began searching for ways to help my students and found a website that talked about how they were different from a typical tutoring center or school. Their work was based on how the brain processes information and with the right training, the brain could be strengthened to get rid of whatever caused the learning disability in the first place.
This was so different from what I heard before, but it made sense to me. For the first time, I felt a sense of hope that I would be able to help my students.
I attended the training and was so excited to use these strategies with my students. I spoke to the administration and the special education supervisor at my school and was told it wasn’t possible to use these strategies in the school. It didn’t matter how effective they were. (After all, while it’s not the schools’ fault, the way they measure success is the number of students who pass the SOLs.)
I was so frustrated! My hands were tied. I had the knowledge but wasn’t able to use it. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I opened our learning center in December 2002. There was such a need for our specialized work that we grew quickly. I stopped teaching full-time in order to focus on running the center.
A few years later, I realized many of our students were under stress trying to memorize information for the SOL tests. Once again, it didn’t matter that many of them were working below grade level as long as they passed their tests. In 2006, I decided to start a school where students would come for a year or two, catch up, and then go back to their schools. A few years ago, we realized that our methods worked so well for our students that they may want to stay with us long term. We have now expanded our school to include all grades.
Please tell us a little about what makes The Marshall School special.
The Marshall School started because we kept seeing stressed out students trying to keep up with the one pace, one method schools with few alternatives. At The Marshall School we teach students what they need to know as well as thinking and learning strategies. Thinking and learning strategies are key to learning and are often overlooked by more traditional school settings. To ensure students have the prerequisite skills for success, each student is individually tested, and programming is customized to maximize their strengths and minimize their struggles. We identify weaknesses in thinking and learning skills and target improvement through brain-based therapies that are backed by research. Students receive direct, highly-customized instruction delivered one-on-one or in small groups during the school day. Frequent re-evaluations keep students moving forward as they master critical skills.
Since we teach class in multi-age classrooms, we are able to teach students on their level and help them move to higher levels as quickly as they are able. This allows us to make sure that students’ foundational skills are solid instead of just pushing them through a curriculum based on their chronological grade.
As we have expanded to included high school, we are excited to be able to offer our high school students access to Pre-employment Transition Services and counseling support to help them envision and reach their goals after high school. Next year, we hope to work with businesses in our community to offer internships/apprenticeships to our students. Many of our students have continued their education at colleges and universities including Virginia Tech, University of Mary Washington, Randolph-Macon College and Germanna Community College, while others have attended technical schools or entered the workforce after high school. We believe in helping students achieve their goals no matter which track they choose.
Do you follow the SOL track?
Not really. For instance, many of our students are working below their grade levels. We make sure they can do most of the skills from their current level and then work to move them through as many grade level standards as possible. Our grading/report cards reflect their progress. Students receive grades, but they are also scored on how they progress through the SOLs. For example, if a student is below his grade level in math, the report card would have the standards for his grade level, but it would also have the standards from lower grades that the student needs to master before being able to do the higher-level work.
What’s a typical day like?
We start each day with a “Morning Meeting.” This is where we work on life skills and social skills with our students. The rest of the day is like a typical school day. Students receive instruction in language arts, math, science, and social studies. Electives are provided. In addition, most students receive one-on-one instruction daily to address their deficiencies.
What types of students benefit from The Marshall School? Why?
Creative, gifted and struggling learners benefit from our innovative teaching strategies, low student ratios and individualized programming. This approach to teaching and learning benefits all children and has shown to be particularly effective for those diagnosed with ADHD, central auditory processing disorder (CAPD) and learning disabilities.
What is the admission process like?
Admission occurs on a rolling basis. We recommend parents call for a phone consultation where the director can learn more about the student and his/her needs. If we believe we’re a good fit, we would ask the parent to submit an application. A visit would be scheduled to do an evaluation of learning styles and strengths and weaknesses as well as to observe the student in the classroom. If space is available, a student may begin immediately. If an opening is not available, the student is placed on a waiting list and their parents will be notified when an opening occurs.
What’s next for Thurgood Marshall School and Leadership Academy?
Even though we have been offering a full-day program for the last 12 years, this year we completely separated the school and our tutoring center. Our name changed to Thurgood Marshall School and Leadership Academy, and we were able to obtain our nonprofit status. We are in the process of becoming an accredited school, and we should complete everything at the beginning of the next school year. Having the nonprofit status allows us to fundraise, allowing us to offer more scholarships to families in need. We are excited to grow and help even more students enjoy the success they deserve.