Exclusive Interview: Education Update Interviews Leaders of The Windward School on Students with Language-Based Learning Disabilities
Transcribed By Erica Anderson
The Windward School in White Plains, N.Y. is an independent, co-ed day school focused exclusively on helping students in grades 1-9 with language-based learning disabilities.
Publisher Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Windward School?
John J. Russell, Ed.D., Head of The Windward School (JR): The school started out in 1926 as a typical progressive day school. It was located in New Rochelle. Then Head of School Isabel Greenbaum Stone and a few of her friends got together and in 1929, right in the teeth of the stock market crash, raised enough money to purchase a piece of property in White Plains in NY on Windward Avenue, and the school became Windward School. In the 1980s, the school really focused its attention on learning disabilities. When Dr. Judith Hochman became head of school, she really zeroed in with laser-like precision on language-based learning disabilities, and that’s what the school has been specializing in ever since.
PR: Devon, how did you become involved with the Windward School?
Devon Fredericks, President of the Board of Trustees (DF): I am very learning disabled myself, and when I saw my children struggling in school, I realized they were having the same problems I had experienced. I had them tested and I looked around for a school that could address their language-based learning disabilities. My son Oliver commuted from New York to Windward for six years because there was not an appropriate school for him in New York. He was very successfully remediated; he’s a college student today. I don’t think any of that would have been possible without Windward’s work. I came to understand the school’s methodology and program, and to embrace it and to want to make it available to more children. It’s very difficult to get a seat at the school because the demand is so great. I became a member of the board of trustees eight years ago, and have been chair for five years.
PR: Jay, can you tell us something about the special programs that are available, and what distinguishes this school?
JR: Because we’re a school for children with language-based learning disabilities, our focus is on language: on reading, writing, listening, and speaking. However, we offer a comprehensive educational program that is parallel to the New York State curriculum. Fifty percent of our students come to us from public schools, 50 percent from independent schools, and after three to five years on average, students leave us and return to mainstream schools. It is a New York State curriculum, and the children are able to return to those mainstream schools seamlessly, and we track them after they leave. Having said that, we use an Orton Gillingham-based reading program that was developed by one of our former directors of education at Windward, who’s still on our faculty of our teacher training institute, Phyllis Bertin, and Eileen Perlman. They developed a program called Preventing Academic Failure and it does a great job of moving students skill by skill by skill through decoding, so that they become accurate and then fluent readers. At the same time we also use a program that Judith Hochman developed, teaching basic writing skills. It was originated and first used at Windward and we still use it, we serve as a model for other schools. So that reading and writing program are really critical. But that doesn’t really give you the full picture. What we really focus on is the use of direct, explicit instruction in all of our classes.
PR: Can you define “explicit instruction?”
JR: Every lesson has certain components, and every lesson has to be prepared by our teachers. The school is different because we group students homogenously for reading and for math at skill level with about 10 children in a group. That allows our teachers to pinpoint a lesson to the skills that the students are still trying to master, as opposed to having a heterogeneous group where the skill level is all over the place. Every lesson has a name, every lesson has a motivation, and every lesson has direct explicit instruction from the teacher based on whatever that skill is. Then there’s an opportunity for guided practice. Immediate feedback is another important component of direct instruction, and then independent work with a teacher checking it. The other thing that makes us different at Windward, we train all of our teachers. You have to go through our teacher-training program and you have to work in the classroom of one of our master teachers for at least a year.
PR: So it’s a supervision of this type of teaching?
JR: Yes, it’s an opportunity to actually see it at work in a classroom live, with real kids, in a real learning situation. The other thing that makes Windward different is every teacher is expert in the teaching of language. We spend a lot of time teaching our teachers how to ask questions, and how to scaffold questions, so that they can help the children access information and so that they can accurately assess where the students are. There are a lot of pieces that make the school different but there’s a gestalt to the school that’s really about the truest meaning I’ve ever seen of a community of learners. We don’t accept that we’re done learning, we’re always continuously learning. Every Friday we release students at 1:30 and the whole faculty, from the least experienced to the most experienced, goes through professional development.
PR: Devon, can you speak to the kinds of stories that you’ve heard from students about the schools they’ve come from, some of their difficulties, and about Windward?
DF: It’s very common that perfectly well meaning teachers will say very insulting things to these kids. They simply don’t understand their problems. They always said about me “She’s such a nice girl, we wish she would work harder.” I couldn’t have worked any harder. It wasn’t a question of working harder; it was a question of being taught differently. I went to public and private schools in New York City and barely made it through high school. We have a panel every spring at Windward where students who have left the school come back from public schools, independent schools, boarding schools and talk about that experience. For many it’s a wonderful experience, they’re thriving in a mainstream school but they still have to advocate for themselves and some of the teachers just don’t get it. I’m sure they don’t mean it, but it’s hard to believe in the 21st century that these kinds of things come out of professionals’ mouths.
PR:Part of the emphasis of the Teacher Training Institute, which you are now expanding, will be on sensitizing professionals on how to handle these students, not just techniques, but the psychological ramifications.
JR: I think most of our professionals are very well intended and they’re trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, I think that pre-service and even graduate education programs don’t adequately prepare teachers to teach reading to the general population and in particular, how to teach children with learning disabilities. These teachers enter the profession with the best of intentions but because they don’t understand the nature of the children’s learning issues, they make lots of errors. I think the people who go through the TTI program have their own personal epiphany without us needing to pinpoint specifics.
PR: What was the rationale behind having a whole new building put up for the Teacher Training Institute?
DF: The board in doing their strategic planning five years ago felt a strong mandate to make the program available to more children. We did a lot of research and we identified training more teachers as the crucial element in expanding the program and that our own Teacher Training Institute was ideally suited to do that. The decision was made, and we had the pleasure last week of dedicating the Judith C. Hochman building of the Windward Teacher Training Institute, a very gratifying experience.
PR: So anybody in the United States can take courses?
JR: We actually had teachers come from Australia and from Israel. There’s a full range of courses offered throughout the year and throughout the summer. This year we will be offering satellite courses in New York City.
PR: Is the international focus the direction that you’re going in?
JR: We have a very ambitious vision for this school. However, we have two important catchphrases that guide everything we do. One is “transform more lives,” because we’ve heard that over and over again from our students and parents that we transform the lives of the students, and the family. The second catchphrase that we use is “preserve the sacred.”
PR:Devon, please expand on that?
DF: We have 557 students in Westchester right now, and they must receive the program at the very highest level of excellence every day. Preserving the sacred is really intended to make sure that the program continues perfectly every day before we think about expanding. With the Teacher Training Institute, we can continue to deliver an excellent program in Westchester, and are thinking about expanding to Manhattan.
PR: How many more students do you think you’ll be able to reach with the expansion?
JR: It’s still in the planning stages. We’re fairly confident by September 2015 we’ll be opening a facility that will allow us to educate 350 additional students. I don’t think I underscored the fact that everything we do is based on research, and that really is what distinguishes us. Work that comes out of the National Reading Panel and the IDEA has a huge body of research that guides everything we do in the classroom.
PR: Do teachers get in-service credits or can use some of the courses at the Teacher Training Institute for a master’s degree or extra credit for advancement in their salary?
JR: They do that frequently. We have an agreement that allows teachers to get graduate credit for courses that they take at the TTI through Manhattanville College. They use it for movement across the salary schedule in the public schools and they are able to receive salary credit.
PR: Maybe you should videotape some of these wonderful lessons and go international.
JR: That is part of our strategic plan, but we also believe in multisensory education. Education being given online or through the Web limits that multisensory piece of it. But I think that is very much the next phase and we have already begun to explore that.
PR: Is there any particular poignant anecdote that stands out in your mind?
DF: I think every Windward parent has the story of the day their student was offered a seat at Windward. We’ve had extraordinary graduation speakers come back from college and from the professional world and talk to students about their experiences.
JR: I’ll tell two anecdotes. When I was being interviewed to be head of school, it was very intense, they covered every aspect of your knowledge of pedagogy, programs, research, interactions with people. You met with trustees, parents and teachers. Then I met with middle school-age students. I said to the children “Is there anything you want me to know about your school that we haven’t covered?” Jeffrey, a 12-year-old boy, raised his hand immediately. He said, “I want you to know, this school saved my life.” There must have been 16 kids in the room and every single one of them was nodding their heads in agreement with Jeffrey.
Another is that one of my trustees recommended that we put up a board with the colleges and universities that Windward students attended. I said “We’re an elementary and middle school, we don’t want to over-emphasize college.” He said, “Jay, you don’t understand. When parents get to the front door of Windward, some of them have been so demoralized. They’ve struggled mightily trying to get something for their children. If you do that, it’ll immediately give them another sense of hope.” We put it up, and I can’t tell you how many prospective parents made a comment to me that it gave them a different perspective, and hope again. #