Fredericksburg Parent

February 2018

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12 Fredericksburg Parent and Family • February 2018 ask the expert a sk t h e e x p e rt Q: Do you mind sharing a little bit of your background with us? I always knew that I wanted to be a special education teacher. In college, I was taught that students with learn- ing 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. And so on. 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 still be when they graduated high school. It was heartbreaking. My last year of teaching, I taught sixth grade. I had 17 stu- dents 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 stu- dents 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 than a typical tutoring center or school. Their work was based on how the brain processes information. With the right training, the brain can be strengthened to get rid of whatever is actually causing a learning disability in the first place. This was so different than what I had ever heard before, but is made so much sense to me. For the first time, I felt a sense of hope that I would be able to help all of 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 and was told that 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 knowl- edge, but I 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 so I could focus on running the center. Eventually, we added a full day program as well. Since 2002, Learning Enhancement Centers has focused on two things: success and the individual. Those who struggle in traditional learning environments know all too well that success can sometimes feel completely out of reach. That's where The Marshall School and Learning Enhancement Centers steps in and embrace how stu- dents learn as individuals. Christina Carson, executive director of Learning Enhancement Centers, explains how the center works, who would benefit from its unique style and how she became involved with the school. INTERVIEWED BY BRENDA SAPANGHILA Learning Enhancement Centers Q: Please tell us what makes Learning Enhancement Centers special. We often use the analogy of a tree to help parents understand how we are different than a typical tutoring place. Starting from the bottom of the tree, we think of the roots. If you saw a tree dying, you would assume it isn't getting enough nutrients from its roots. The same is true academical- ly; if a student is struggling, it is usually due to weak underlying skills. These skills are the mental tools necessary to succeed. They are things like memory, attention, visual and auditory processing, and pro- cessing speed. If a student hasn't acquired these foundational skills, school will always be a struggle. The second part of the tree is the trunk or the stem. Its job is to take the nutrients from the roots up to the leaves and branches. Academically, we correlate this to executive function skills. Executive function skills are the mental management skills, which impact things like time management, orga- nization and study skills. The third part of the tree is the leaves and branches. We associate this part of the tree with the academic subjects such as reading, writing, math and spelling. This is where most tutoring centers and schools focus. However, if there is anything wrong with the roots (processing skills) or trunk (executive function skills), tutoring might help for a while, but it won't correct the problem for the long term. School will continue to be a struggle. You can try to support the leaves and branches, but the tree is still going to die. Our speciality is determining what causes someone to struggle. Other tutoring centers and schools focus on the symptom—but if you want to make a lasting change, you need to know what is causing the struggle in the first place, as that will determine how you address the issue. We tend to overlap with vision therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, but we also know how to address the academic issues. Because we see the "whole child" and not just one of those areas, we are good at knowing how everything fits together to make a plan that will be the best, most efficient way to help each student we see.

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