Exclusive Interview with Stevenson School Headmaster Douglas Herron, and Director of Outreach, Matthew Mandelbaum
Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): The Robert Louis Stevenson School actually started over a hundred years ago as a girl’s school and the school has become a very specialized school. What differentiates you from other schools providing special services to different learners?
Doug Herron (DH): I think there are three primary ways that distinguish us. One is that we try to work with every student individually by gaining a full understanding of both their academic, social and emotional strengths and challenges so that we can program them into classes according to how they are functioning academically. The second is that we work in a program that has essentially fully integrated academic and psychological services. So the keystone of our program is our advising system; the advisor is the key adult for the student in the school. Advisors are also teachers so they understand the educational and the emotional process from both sides as an advisor/counselor and as a teacher in the classroom. Because we are very small we also have daily full faculty meetings where students’ yesterday issues are discussed, so that everybody on the staff knows what is going on with every kid all the time. I think the third point is that we work very hard to have a good collaborative relationship with outside professionals who are involved with the student, the families, the student therapist, the family therapist, other child service agencies that may be involved, we try to keep good communication and try to make sure we fit in the right place in the student’s needs with what we are providing in school but we are part of a the bigger picture of what is going on with the student at the time.
Dr. Matthew Mandelbaum (MM): We are helping bright adolescents who have social, emotional and learning issues succeed, transform their lives and go on to college. We have 100 percent college acceptance rate. We also have rolling admissions, so students can come to us throughout the year and a July term. Most of our students are funded by their district, so that allows us to have a lot of economic and racial diversity; we are a private school for the public good.
PR: Dr. Mandelbaum, one of the selling things about this school is that you have eight students in a class and that you have certain subjects like mindfulness. Can you elaborate?
MM: As Doug said, this school is about addressing the whole adolescent and what that means is that we need to think about them from an academic standpoint, from a social/emotional perspective as well as how they are developing physically and see that come together in an integrated fashion. That should come across in daily practice for the students and the teachers. In terms of mindfulness, what that means is helping them be present in every moment so they can take full advantage of this opportunity to go to school. That means learning strategies of how to work with their thoughts and their feelings and their bodies and other strategies so they can engage in academic discourse and do well in school.
PR: Mr. Herron, you have been here more than three decades. What are some of the challenges you have faced recently and what accomplishments are you proudest of?
DH: Let me start with the second part. It’s a history of helping kids and turning their lives around and their families’ lives around. These are all talented, bright kids who should be moving on to a productive future who have been stuck failing or underachieving in previous schools that haven’t been able to meet their specific learning needs, emotional needs or developmental needs. I could cite certain graduates who have gone on to some prominent positions but the real pride is in the number of kids we have been able to help. The founder of this school Lucille Rhodes still gets an occasional call from someone saying how “you saved my life when I came to Stevenson” and that’s really what we are about. Board members and others feel we provide a real service to New York City in this regard. Not only do we help individual families but we really are a service organization as well as a school preparing kids for college.
Challenges, I think there are some shifts in our population over time so we need to kind of revamp and understand. I think our basic principles remain essentially the same. Every school is challenged these days by dealing with social media issues that the kids use. If we can be a half step at least ahead of them and we try to do it in a way like everything else we do, of integrating a reasonable approach to encourage students to take responsibility for their actions. As Matthew spoke earlier about mindfulness, that’s another part of it. In the old days, one would have said, “Look before you leap,” but now it’s think before you post a text that’s going to hurt somebody’s feelings or get some kind of negative impact on you. This is a whole area that is new and challenging in the last several years and obviously we would like to avoid it but it’s not possible. It’s here to stay. Another kind of challenge we face is that because most of our students are supported for their tuition in one way or another by the Department of Education we struggle because the Department of Education like any big bureaucracy in New York City doesn’t pay in a timely fashion. Now we see many more students who are really disabled by their anxiety and that’s understandable but we are seeing it as a much more generalized situation.
PR: I can’t help but reflect on the name of the school, Robert Louis Stevenson and that great man who wrote so many wonderful books and short stories. But one of the things he said was, “An aim in life is the only fortune worth finding.” And it seems to me that this school indeed fulfills that quote. Would you say that you emphasize finding an aim in life for your students?
MM: I would say that that is happening every day, in every class. When the physical education teacher helps a student achieve one more push-up or one more sit-up than the week before and reach that goal, when the English teacher helps the student revise the paper so it’s that much better, when the band really starts cooking and they can really make that song sound great, they’re reaching those goals. I think problem solving and goal-setting and goal achievement and taking things into smart goals that are able to be small and measureable and achievable and timely, these help the student actually make that leap from far down the road wherever they want to go with just one step and the journey definitely begins with one step.
If you look in the office there is a picture of the graduating class all dressed in blue with their caps and gowns, those smiles say so much because each one has had a history of ups and downs and they have been able to make it somewhere. They have the hope for a future that’s real. That is a good fortune and we have helped them do that.
PR: Tell us a little about the student who is an example of that goal that has been fulfilled and that is the one that gave the “Ted” talk recently; he had done some volunteer work with autistic children. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
DH: Sure, he has been with us for two years, he will graduate this year and has had apparently a long-standing interest in working with autistic children based on some of his own personal struggles. If you tune into his “Ted” talk you will find a really remarkable example of an articulate young man speaking about a difficult struggle that he had along the way. He has been extremely successful here, happy here in a way that he hadn’t been at previous schools. He mentions that briefly in the talk. He is an outstanding science student, he received an award this year, one of the Rising Scientists awards from the Child Mind Institute. He hopes and I feel quite confident that he will make it to become a psychiatrist and continue to work with children with mental health problems.
PR: What are your goals for the school for the next five years? Where would you like to be?
DH: In the next five years, I think we have some pretty clear goals. One is to expand moderately our population because we want to serve more students than we now are. In the past year, another of the goals that is already in process is our outreach. Especially Matthew’s work as Director of Outreach to get us connected so that everybody who works with kids, adolescents in the community, in the schools, in the child service areas, private practitioners – psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and so on, should know what we do and what kind of kid we can really help transform their lives and get them through a really hard spot. So we plan to grow a little bit and as we do that if our current projections show within about three or four years we should be ready and I hope able to move into a somewhat larger facility. We’re not planning to get very big because the kind of work we do is limited. The work is so intense we are never going to be a school of three hundred students but to expand our services to a larger group of kids.
PR: What would you say parents need to know to best help their children?
MM: There are many things that parents need to know. First of all, they need to know that it’s possible what they want for their kids, their hopes, their dreams for their kids, it’s possible. They need to know they have rights; their children have rights to a free and appropriate public education. And if they are not getting that in their school system, they have a right to find that and get that for their child. They need to know how to get the right services like neuropsychological services and legal services. They need to know that it’s important to find a school that’s a right match for their child. They need to know that their providers see the strengths and the struggles that their child have and look to address both and grow the strengths and help remediate the struggles. They need to find people to work with their child who believe in hope, faith and optimism that good things can happen. They need to know that they are part of a community with other families who might be struggling with the same thing and find those communities and be a part of them. And they need to know that once again it is very possible for their child to have the life that they deserve and that they want.
PR: We are going to wrap up very shortly. I’d like to know some of the colleges that your students go to. And I think that 100 percent rate of enrollment is amazing, just amazing, in any school but particularly in a special needs school..
MM: We’ve had students in the last years go to schools like Brandeis. Students this year have been accepted to the University of Vermont, SVA, the CUNY schools, the SUNY schools. I always say college is not about the sweatshirt, it’s about the match and we work really hard to make sure that the students find that school where they will get the right support they need.
PR: Lastly to wrap up, what is the message you want to give to your students as they move on?
DH: I think the core of the message is that they can do it and they have proven here that they can do it. The road will not be easy, there will be challenges ahead but if we’ve succeeded to the best degree we have been able to give them the tools so they can identify and take on those challenges. There’s lots of help out there available, they need to know how to access it. And if they do those two things I think they will be really quite successful.
PR: Kudos to both of you. Thank you so much Doug and Matthew for letting Education Update come here today to really learn more in-depth about the wonderful work that you do with students in the city of New York.#