On Going Forward to School
On going forward to school…
Thoughts from our Head of School as we open the doors for on our first full year
The start of school can be a time of excitement, anxiety, hope -- or all of the above. As we prepare to reopen Cajal Academy later this week, I thought I would share some of my own thoughts and reflections on the journey and the opportunities before us, and to wish everyone a successful start to the new school year.
For me, this mission is personal. This time last year, I had a child in significant academic, medical and social crisis, and no idea which way to turn. He had no sense of his own intelligence and was only aware of the many ways in which he didn’t “fit.” It was clear that the public school lacked either the program or the expertise to help him reach his potential, yet every private school we applied to told us that he didn’t fit their mold because he was either "too complicated," "too smart" — or both. In short, he was a child without an educational home.
And yet, we were privileged to have the support of a truly expert and deeply-committed team, so we got to work. Over the course of a year, my son's team and I climbed into the trenches and waded through the science. With the help of internationally-recognized neuropsychologist Dr. Steven Mattis, we dug deep into his myriad evaluations and found the key issues that were driving seemingly disparate challenges, across multiple areas. Then we took a page out of his occupational therapist’s book and started using games and movement to literally rewire his brain to better do those tasks. With the help of Alison Margo, a highly-experienced teacher with a deep affinity for kids who’ve experienced trauma (academic or otherwise), we ripped curriculum down into granular cognitive skills. We teased apart his strongest cognitive skills from those where he was weakest, and gave him a chance to discover not only his own very high intelligence but a passion to learn.
The more obstacles we cleared away, the more we could see that traditional notions of the classroom were standing in the way of progress — starting with the siloed approach to kids’ physio, learning, social and emotional needs. So we started breaking those walls down. Rather than fighting his need to get up and move, we harnessed it, pairing spelling rules and geography lessons with multi-sensory obstacle courses —and watched his productive work sessions stretch from twenty minutes to an hour and forty while cutting to a fraction the time required to absorb and retain new concepts. We embedded into the curriculum information about basic human physiology, paired with coaching in strategies he could use to monitor, manage and advocate for the many ways in which his own medical profile differs, encouraging him to share with his teacher everything from visual processing challenges to sudden blood pressure drops so that she could partner with him to find solutions. Soon, his instruction was as integrated as his life-lived experiences, and the grown ups were shouldering his differences — allowing him to be a kid.
And then together we watched him grow.
Within months, he lept ahead in reading, discovered his significant intuition for math and was selling CDs of his own original music — at a mere 8 years old. This summer, he thrived at three different camps, armed with the strategies he needed to manage and advocate for his social, emotional and medical differences so that he could be with his peers. He even took the stage in a rock band with kids up to twice his age, finally “owning” his own (formidable) musical talent. And he is looking forward to discovering what else he can do over the course of the year ahead, through exciting, real world problems and projects he can be proud of. Best of all, he is well on his way to seeing the beauty of his own spark. We still have a long road ahead, but already he is nothing short of transformed.
All who know my boy know that his profile is pretty unique — but the science we used to get him here isn't. Neuroplasticity teaches us that we can rewire the human brain to increase capacity in areas of challenge when we go after them systematically rather than merely "accommodating". Neurophysiology teaches us that kids can take agency over their social, emotional and learning outcomes when we teach them to read their bodies and use them to prepare their minds. Nueropsychology teaches us that just as every child has a unique set of weaknesses, they have unique strengths that we can leverage as well. For decades, tools and strategies have been developed in therapeutic settings that apply this science to make real on-the-ground impacts. And educational researchers tell us that children engage more deeply and retain content longer when it is coupled with movement, or presented through inquiry-based learning — let alone both.
By April of last year, our team could see the power in bringing this science to bear in the classroom, but we couldn't find a school to recreate it. We had all been thrilled to see my son's progress, but throughout it all one fact nagged at us: the knowledge that he is not alone.
In fact, educational advocates and attorneys tell us that lots of bright kids who have learning, social, emotional or medical differences find themselves similarly without an appropriate educational home — and our community is not alone. Shockingly, there are only about twenty schools nationwide serving the needs of “twice exceptional” kids.
So together as a team, we decided to build one. With the help of national STEM instruction and project-based learning expert Robin Marcus, a member of our Board of Directors, we began developing a framework for combining highly-individualized programs like the one we’d created for my son into project-based learning: a skills-based framework in which academic content is presented through collaborative, real-world problem-solving to build critical thinking skills along with the social and emotional skills required for collaborating with peers. Projects like using data to reduce household environmental impacts (while learning about measurement, applied mathematics, electricity and environmental science) and telling stories important to our local community through photojournalism (while learning about local history and economics, and developing community engagement, organizational, writing and visual arts skills).
Today, our team is excited to open the doors on a new space and turn over a new leaf. Throughout the fall, we will be inviting new students to join our program and creating an individualized program for each one as we bring them into the fold. We will be taking advantage of our small size at this stage to embed in other community-based organizations, providing an opportunity to develop communication and leadership skills not only with their peers but with the broader community and in “real world” settings. And we will be announcing new partnerships with local corporations and nonprofit organizations to bring the depth of expertise required to give even the most precocious learners room to grow with “no ceiling” standing in their way.
As we take this step, I will admit that building a school is a daunting task — but it is nothing compared to the challenge I faced as “Mom” last year. Over the last several months, I have been moved by my conversations with families who find themselves in a similar position to the one that I was in last year: sensing that their child's current school does not have the right program to help them fulfill their potential, facing down a challenging process with their school district. All too often, they are holding a child who has lost faith in the whole endeavor in the face of a system that lacks the expertise to find solutions, or the imagination to see how far they can really go.
I remember that feeling all too well — that and the spark in my son’s eye when we showed him what he can do are what fuel my passion to open Cajal Academy up as a new educational home for all our children. We are a non-profit school, and my own time is entirely volunteered. But I can think of no more rewarding work, and I know that this is a journey well worth taking.
If you or someone you know is looking for a new and more scientifically driven approach to help a child overcome differences in how they learn and experience the world -- or who simply wants a more engaging educational approach -- I hope you will reach out. And if our mission excites you, please get in touch to find out ways that you could help us grow.
Wishing you the best for the start of the year ahead,