Changes for the new school year

As our year winds down, we are already looking ahead to the next one. One of the exciting things about being a small independent school is that we don’t have to do it the way everyone else does. We can find a different way. That is why our students are here in the first place. And we have some changes coming as well as some good things remaining.

•We flirted with the idea of moving, but our board voted to remain in Murphey School for another year. The lack of closet space is outweighed by 15 foot ceilings, light-filled rooms, the merry-go-round, and the world’s best landlord. And there’s the way the light makes the wood floors glow as it shines down the hall early morning . . .

•We love our older kids. But most of our parents knew their children needed this environment as early as kindergarten. It just doesn’t make sense to make them wait, and so this year we will offer a primary classroom, K-3, to a limited number of children. We will offer an enhanced sensory diet, research-based reading and math instruction, positive reinforcement, structure, social skills instruction, and lots of chance for movement. And as is true for every child at JRA, each child will work on their own level.

•As our 9th graders age up, we are adding 10th grade. They will receive high school credit along with structure and support to help them access the material they need.

•We will continue with Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking curriculum. Our social thinking lunches have proved to be popular with both students and teachers.

•We continue to pull in more resources to help our kids be successful behaviorally. We know that most maladaptive behavior is a kid’s trying to get away from something uncomfortable or to get something he needs. We want to look at each child’s difficulties carefully without the assumption that they are being just manipulative or trying to drive us crazy. Then, perhaps, we can help move them towards more productive coping strategies.

•Our entire staff and many of our contract OTs and SLPs will be trained in Bal-a-vis-X. We are hosting founder Bill Hubert at the school in August to give some of our teachers additional training, while training others for the first time.

Could this be the place for your child? You won’t know until you visit and find out. Give me a call and I’ll show you around!

accentuating the positive

A parent called me last month about the possibility of her son attending JRA. He was being counseled out of his current private school, and she was feeling quite nervous. Her concerns were all legitimate: he’d be devastated to leave his group of friends, and we were SO small compared to where he’d been. And that point system wouldn’t work with him; they’d tried point systems before and he hated them. But she was feeling desperate, so we decided to give it a try and we set up a visit.

Brandon had a great visit. He made an immediate friend, and all the other kids liked him as well. He loved art class and kickball. He didn’t say a word about the point sheet and dutifully carried it from class to class.

Our point sheet is set up in fifteen minute intervals, with points given in three areas: being kind, following directions, and participating in a positive way. There is a space for bonus points, which are given anytime we see someone doing something difficult, being extra kind, or just plain rising above our baseline expectations. If they don’t meet expectations, they get a dot. There is also a space for comments, which we make anytime they get a bonus or a dot.

Any student who gets two or fewer dots by the end of the day gets a twenty minute Harbor Time, in which students can choose from a variety of activities: knitting, art, break dancing, drama, drumming, playground, IPad games, board games, Jenga, or silent reading. Not every option is open every day and they sign up in the morning for the activity they hope to earn. If they don’t make Harbor Time, nothing bad happens, but nothing particularly fun does either. They just hang with Ms Houser or me while the others are participating in an activity.

In Brandon’s previous schools, because of his behavior he was the only one who had a point sheet. It was embarrassing to take it up to the teacher because it so clearly marked him as the problem. At JRA, everyone has a sheet. Two of our kids have never had a single dot and it’s a source of great pride for them. And we tally bonus points at the end of each day and carry them over to the next; when they get ten, they get a coupon that can be turned in for special field trips, extra IPad time, and even to buy back a dot.

The night of Brandon’s successful visit, his mother went up to tuck him in. “Can I start at JRA tomorrow?” he asked. She hadn’t expected THAT. “Why?” she asked. His first reason was that he appreciated not having homework, a sentiment his mother shared. He really liked the kids and kickball and art. “And I like getting a list of all the things I did right at the end of the day,” he continued. His mom was taken aback for a moment. “What list?” she asked him. “The point sheet,” he replied. And sure enough, there on his point sheet was a series of checks, with five bonus points and their explanation: good sportsmanship in kickball, reading the entire silent reading time, bringing a vegetable for lunch, collaboration in science, and taking a placement test in math.

Brandon isn’t used to getting a list of things he has done right because there is so much focus on what he does wrong that the good things get forgotten. One of the things his parents were most worried about turned out to be one of his favorite things.

We were happy to receive his application for 2012-13 year and we look forward to his attendance next year.

Structure without rigidity

We have just finished our first week of school and it’s been great. I’ve never seen kids so determined to succeed. They are funny, bright and want desperately for this to be the place that works.

We’ve tried to stack the deck in their favor. Each child visited at least twice this summer and met some of the other students. We did pre-assessments so we could start them where they needed to be. We listened to their suggestions about how they’d like school to be. Procedures are posted on the wall; they never have to wonder what they do when they come in first thing in the morning—it’s there and it’s the same every morning. We schedule plenty of movement.

But I’ve discovered this week that what makes the biggest difference in their attitudes is that we have structure without rigidity. We are highly structured. They are given procedures for every transition and expectations for every situation. The schedule is posted prominently and any changes are given in morning circle time. There aren’t many surprises.

But structure isn’t the same thing as rigidity. Within that structure there is room to meet each child’s needs. Each room has a popup tent in the corner with a beanbag chair in it. Kids regularly ask to go to the tent for a few minutes. Sometimes they read, sometimes they just sit. Over the years, our kids have been taught multiple strategies for coping with anger and lack of impulse control, but parents report that they often weren’t allowed to use them in school. Taking time and space is a great strategy and one that can be done without a fuss. One child hates stationary desks; he wants to control how far away from his desk he is. Luckily we have multiple seating options. Another likes to sit in a bean bag. Why not?

One child got very upset about where we assigned him to start in his math book. He knew that, he said. “Fine,” his teacher said. “Show me where you think you should start.” He spent twenty minutes looking through the book and finally decided lesson 82. She had him do a few problems and he did them well. He’s starting in lesson 82.

Surprisingly, no one complains that things aren’t fair, because we don’t try to be fair. Students have different needs and need different accommodations and challenges. Because we do that for every child AND include them in setting goals and objectives, they don’t mind that things aren’t the same for everyone. And they know they have different challenges as well. In front of the school is a wonderful but very loud school bell that they love to ring. But they don’t even ask when E. is around because they know he has sensitive ears. Some children have reading tutors; some don’t need them. Some use the computer to write; others don’t need to.

Structure without rigidity. Far too often I see rigidity without the structure. We thought we’d try something different. So far it’s working.