Sue Heck: We have to do something to help. I gave up my trip, so they don’t have to pay for it. And you guys better start thinking of ways we can save money, too.
Axl Heck: No way! It’s their fault. They don’t know how to budget. They should’ve stopped having kids after me. You guys are the real money drain with your braces and your special school.
Brick Heck: I don’t go to a special school.
Axl Heck: You don’t?
—The Middle, “The Hose” (10/17/12)
This week I made a visit to a college in Vermont. Not for the benefit of Daughter, who is long-graduated, or Wee One, who’s already been accepted to a school in Pennsylvania, but for the benefit of my students.
Specifically, I was invited to visit Landmark College in the town of Putney, VT for their Professional Visit Days. Landmark isn’t just any college, oh no. Landmark is a school entirely geared toward students with learning differences, including reading difficulties, ADHD, and even students who fall on the autism spectrum. Most of the students who attend there have flunked out of some other school, because that school didn’t really have a handle on their learning style. So in a way, it’s a college version of the high school I’m working in, with the overage and under-credited kids. And even with the disproportionate number of Special Education students, although they’re at 100% where we’re more like 30%.
Landmark bills themselves as “The college of choice for students who learn differently,” and everything they do is geared toward that fact. The first thing they do with students is try to figure out what that difference is, what their learning style is, how their minds work. They put a lot of neuroscience research into this, and have come up with their working definition of Executive Function (short version: it’s how your brain controls all of your processes), which they use to help the students plan a means of approaching their education. And one of the first things they do is focus on the student’s STRENGTHS rather than their deficits. So, for example, if a student has a low processing speed, that’s reframed as the student working deliberately and taking their time to get the right answer. (I usually tell them, “you’re not fast, but you’re accurate” which is a step in the right direction, I think.)
At any rate, Landmark has a very low staff-to-student ratio, and a class of 15 is considered to be pretty big. There’s an emphasis on coaching the students without constantly holding their hands (they’re still responsible for college-level work, after all), and on Universal Design in Learning, something which I’ve argued for for a long time, and frequently gotten pushback over (“If you’re accommodating everybody, then you’re accommodating nobody!”, which is crap). And while they’re not on the cutting edge from a technology standpoint, they do have a very good handle on what works with their students and what doesn’t.
As I noted earlier, Landmark is located in Putney, Vermont, which feels like the middle of nowhere but really isn’t. It’s only a few miles from Brattleboro, and also a stone’s throw from Keene, New Hampshire, where most of the bigger stores are (e.g. Walmart). Many students, despite their age, don’t have transportation of their own, so the school arranges lots of field trips to the movie theater, or over to Keene, or other traveling-based activities. Plus, there are lots of things to do on campus as well. For a school with only about 500 students, there is definitely more than its share of things to do.
One of the revelations I had when visiting this school was the way that the students, almost to the last, all gave me some version of “I knew I had a disability, but I really didn’t know what that meant/how it related to me.” All of them have stories about being given medication, or someone else doing their schoolwork for them, or being excluded from their own IEP meetings. From that standpoint, I have to say that again, we’re ahead of the curve a little bit, since I insist that students attend and participate in their own meetings (there’s not much I can do with truant kids, but if they’re in the building, sure). I have more work to do in this area, to be sure, but it’s good to know that I’m better than most.
Next week I’ll be visiting Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. That visit won’t be as comprehensive as Landmark, but I still hope I’ll learn a lot and have some exciting stuff to share when I return.