An interview with Christina Carson of The Marshall School
How did The Marshall School get started?
First, I need to give a bit of information about my tutoring center and how that led to the school.
I always knew I wanted to be a special education teacher. In college, they taught me 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.”
When I began teaching, the focus was on getting my students to pass the state test. We didn’t have time to “fix” the disabilities. We accommodated and modified the work. It felt like we didn’t care if they could read, just that they could pass the test. My students were bright and could pass the test as long as someone read it to them. But I worried about what their future would look like. They might pass enough tests to get their diplomas, but what purpose would that serve if they still couldn’t read? How would they pass their driver’s license tests or fill out a job application? These thoughts overwhelmed me. I came home crying almost every night. There had to be something more that I could do.
I searched for ways to help my students and found a website that talked about how they differed from a typical tutoring center or school. They based their work on how the brain processes information. With the right training, students can strengthen their brains to get rid of whatever is causing the learning disability.
This was different from what I had ever heard before, but it made so much sense. For the first time, I believed I could help my students.
I attended the training and was so excited to use these strategies with my students. The administration and the special education supervisor told me it wasn’t possible to use these strategies in the school. It didn’t matter how effective they were. (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 I couldn’t 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. We grew quickly. I stopped teaching full-time and focused on running the center.
We are not like a typical tutoring center. We train the brain to process information. We don’t help with homework, so when someone comes to us, we are usually adding something more to their schedule. Our goal is to correct what is causing the problem in the first place, so the student won’t always need a tutor.
One student stands out. She was in fifth grade, a grade that had four SOL tests. She was spending hours each night trying to memorize everything she would need for her tests, but she was only reading on a second-grade level. I needed her to spend more time doing our work to increase her reading. Her parents were concerned about her passing her SOLs. And suddenly, it hit me. I needed to open a school.
The original intent of the school was for students to attend for a few years. We would catch them up and then send them back as an independent learner. That model was successful, but then we had another track of students. We have several students who flourished with our specialized teaching strategies. So much so their parents wanted to keep them at the school for a longer period. We decided that we would become a school where students could stay their whole career if that was what best for them.
Please tell us a little about what makes The Marshall School special.
I say this humbly, but boldly, there is so much that makes us special. First, we are passionate about integrating academic learning with mindfulness and social-emotion learning. We teach our students about their challenges and show them ways to overcome those challenges, so they can become successful learners. Besides a typical school day and subjects, our students get 1-on-1 time to re-mediate their learning deficits. We teach social skills daily. Our students are engaged and there is no bullying. We teach our students how to handle conflict in a way that honors both sides. I could go on and on. If you were to ask our students, they would say things like, “It feels like a family,” “Everyone supports you here,” “I fit in,” “The teachers care about you,” “They teach so I can learn.” I love hearing them talk like this, but it also makes me sad that they don’t think this is something every school should be.
Academically, our students are grouped according to ability for reading and math. This allows struggling learners to fill in gaps they might have missed previously without having to “push them” forward if they aren’t ready. It also allows our advanced students to be taught at their academic level. For instance, we had two sixth graders who were in a pre-algebra class this year.
What’s a typical day like?
We start every day with our “Morning Meeting.” This is where we teach social skills and the students get to know each other. We teach math, reading/language arts, history, science and electives. We have a snack and a recess break (all age groups) in the morning. At lunch, students have 45 minutes to eat and then play. Students also receive 1-on-1 time. In the fall and spring, we spend an hour per week serving at the Food Bank Community Garden. We want to teach students to look outside themselves and to serve others.
What types of students benefit from attending The Marshall School? Why?
Our focus used to be on students with learning disabilities. Our specialized learning strategies coupled with their 1-on-1 time made it possible for them to catch up to their peers. But then we realized that many other students also benefit from the way we do things. We have several students who I consider dually exceptional. They are gifted learners, but struggle with ADHD and executive function disorder. We also have several students with anxiety or who struggle socially that benefit from our small class sizes and social skills training.
What is the admission process like?
Admission is on a rolling basis. We have students come to the school for a visit. We evaluate their learning style and processing skills and their academic levels. Based on our evaluation, we know how to best meet each student’s needs and place them in their classes based on this information. This allows us to be sure we will teach them in a way that best fits their needs. If we feel we would be a good fit, we would offer an admission contract.
What’s the future look like for the school?
One thing I would like people to know is that we have remained small for several years. Running a school takes a lot of energy. I’ve come to realize that there is a tremendous need in our area. Our children deserve more. We are now in the process of separating our tutoring center and our school. The school will be a non-profit, and we will raise funds to make the school accessible for more students. We have found a larger space, and we should be there for the new school year. Our vision is to prepare students not just for academic success, but for social and emotional success. We believe this is the best way to prepare them to become productive members of society. As we expand, we will look for others who see the value in what we do and can help support our vision. We are excited about the impact we will make for students in the Fredericksburg area.