by Emily Freehling
In the coming school year with Learning Enhancement Centers and The Marshall School
Every student has a unique learning style, and helping those students succeed in an education system dominated by standardized tests is on the minds of many parents as Fredericksburg-area schools prepare to start a new academic year in August. This month we’re sharing thoughts and perspective from Christina Carson. Christina is a former public school special education teacher whose frustration with the limitations of “teaching to the test” led her to open Learning Enhancement Centers, where students come for one-on-one tutoring and help, and the Thurgood Marshall School and Leadership Academy, a full-time day school serving kindergarten through twelfth grade. Located in Spotsylvania County, these educational organizations both focus on training the brain to process information, and equipping students with the thinking and learning strategies they need to succeed over a lifetime of learning.
Q: What can I do if I know my child is struggling academically, but I don’t know how to help, or the strategies we’ve been using aren’t working?
You have to know specifically where things are breaking down before you can make it better. When we do evaluations of new students, we are looking at the big picture of how your child’s brain processes information. How are their thinking skills, their memory, their attention, reason, processing? Where are they academically, and what is an efficient way to improve that? This information is such a gift, and it gives you so much understanding about how to help your child and what they really need. From that point, we can talk to our families about a customized plan of tutoring at Learning Enhancement Centers, or enrolling at the Marshall School if that is what they need. Or if it’s something we can’t address ourselves, we will try to refer the student to someone who can.
Q: How is the mindset at your school and tutoring center different from what you encountered as a public school teacher?
When I taught in public school, I had a deep desire to see my students genuinely learn — not just to be able to pass a test. So I was incredibly frustrated when my students were sent on to middle school before they had mastered the basic skill of reading. They had passed the test, so in the school’s eyes, they were ready for the next level. I like to think about it like building a house. Let’s say you’ve got your foundation 70 percent finished. No building inspector would ever come out and say, “That looks great, keep building.” But that’s what we’re doing in our schools. As long as students score 70 percent on the Standards of Learning (SOL) test, we move them up to the next level. Then when kids start to get up to higher levels of academic subjects like math, things start to fall apart. We want kids to master one skill before they move on to the next thing.
Right now, there’s a lot of pressure for students to be at these higher levels of math by a certain level of middle or high school. There’s a great fear of “falling behind.” A lot of this is based on comparing American students with scores from places like China, but we have to remember — China doesn’t educate every child like the U.S. does. So we are comparing all of our students against something like the top 10 percent of Chinese students in math. At the Marshall School, we don’t move our students into algebra or higher levels of math until they are ready for it. We also prioritize practical skills like personal finance. I really care about the kids going out and being able to be successful members of society, and not a burden because we spent their whole academic career trying to teach them things they weren’t ready to learn.
Q: If my child has an individualized education plan (IEP) at his or her school, how are the services you provide different from the accommodations they get under that plan?
Public schools are mandated to get your child to pass the SOL tests. That goal is the driving force behind the services they will provide under an IEP. So they may offer accommodations like reading the test to the child, or showing a child the steps on a calculator to get the right answer to a problem. The problem is that these are all focused on specific academic tasks, not the overall mechanics of how your child learns. Our goal at both Learning Enhancement Centers and the Marshall School is to see what the underlying problems are that are causing your child to have trouble with specific academic subjects. We work in a one-on-one setting on brain-training activities that go after those problems.
Another way we are different is that in a typical public school, you have to request accommodations for your child. We automatically build many of these things into our school so that the kids can access the curriculum to be successful, whether that’s having voice-to-text to be able to write a paper or listening to music to calm down.
Q: How important is one-on-one work to a child’s success in overcoming learning disabilities or other obstacles?
Learning is different for every person, right down to the pace that they can work at. We often use a metronome to work on attention or processing speed. Your rate of processing versus someone else’s might be very different, so being one-on-one is critical to avoiding frustration. When we say “one-on-one” we literally mean person-to-person. In some tutoring centers, they may tell you they are doing one-on-one work, but it’s really individualized packets of worksheets. It’s individualized to the student, but it’s all packaged. With “personalized learning” being a buzzword in the educational community, you will see some schools relying on web-based programs like Khan Academy to teach students. That is not what we mean by “one-on-one” learning. We are talking about a trained learning specialist in a room with your child working on brain-training activities to overcome the specific obstacles he or she faces. That kind of work helps the student understand his or her own learning style and helps them to be a better learner in the future.
Q: When a student comes to work with you at the Learning Enhancement Centers, what does a typical program look like?
We always start with an evaluation to identify where the learning deficits are, and then we will do specific programs to train the brain to better process information and be more efficient. We usually see students twice a week, for an hour each time, one-on-one. It’s all about the specific needs of the individual student. We retest every 20 hours and refine our goals based the student’s progress. We want to make sure that we are doing exactly what is needed to get the best, most efficient results. Our average student gains about two years of reading competency in about 40 hours with us.
Q: What is the difference between the work you do at the Marshall School and the tutoring you do at Learning Enhancement Centers?
At the school, all of the things we are doing after school hours in the tutoring center are part of our day. That includes the one-on-one tutoring. Students usually do two hours a week of this during their first year, and then it decreases or ends after that depending on the student’s progress. The approach is the same in both the tutoring center and the school.