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Ability Levels Mingle at High School-WSJ

Lynne Master, M Ed was quoted in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal on ability levels in High School. Read the article below, or click HERE to read the article on the WSJ website (they will prompt you to log in or create an account).



Nov. 27, 2014 9:24 p.m. ET

When the Ideal School and Academy was founded in 2005 to serve kindergarten through fifth grade on all ends of the ability—and disability—spectrum, people said it couldn’t be done.

Now with about 150 students ranging from kindergarten to ninth grade, Ideal is launching its boldest, and riskiest, experiment yet: a full-fledged “inclusion” high school that strives to challenge the most accelerated students without sacrificing support for the neediest.

The school’s student body includes 65% typically developing students and 35% students with a wide range of special needs. Those include autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia, mobility challenges and sensory issues such as hearing problems. All learn together in the same classrooms.

For special-needs families, it can be an easy sell. But the school’s success depends on wooing a majority of “regular” or even advanced students—a challenge at any grade, school officials say. “People write us off,” said head of school Angela Bergeson. “Some people want to put us in that special-ed box. This is just a good school, period.”

But with their children’s college admissions at stake, many parents view any new high school in New York City’s competitive landscape as a costly gamble. Ideal’s tuition ranges from $36,800 for mainstream students up to $100,000 for the most seriously challenged ones. And the school’s model is wholly untested at this age level, when abilities and emotional-maturity levels diverge sharply even in traditional classrooms, officials acknowledge.

“It seems to me that it’s wishful thinking,” said Lynne Master, the founding director of Learning Disabilities Clinic in Oak Park, Mich., which diagnoses and treats a wide range of learning disorders. Students of differing abilities at that age “are thinking at such different levels,” she said.

Already, middle schoolers at Ideal are separated by ability in math, literature and writing, a practice that will continue in the high school. In the upper school, students will be able to pursue an International Baccalaureate diploma and specialize in one of three areas: performing and visual arts, humanities and social sciences or Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM). The curriculum will include life-skills classes including cooking, carpentry and sewing as well as international trips.

dance class.jpg

Students participate in dance class. NATALIE KEYSSAR

“I don’t think you can succeed unless you’re willing to fail,” said Mitch Rubin, the board president and a member of one of the school’s founding families. “We don’t think we will.”

Still, the stakes are high for a school that continues to run an operational deficit of $1 million to $2 million a year, according to Mr. Rubin. The gap could be closed if the school cut its financial-aid program, sacrificed support services or partnerships with institutions like Lincoln Center, officials said. But that would undermine the school’s fundamental mission, they said.

The key, school officials stressed, is simply getting parents through the door.

When Justin Samaha was searching for a school for his twin daughters two years ago, the Washington Heights composer said he was impressed by the rigor of the classes, including studying “Beowulf” in fifth grade with customized handouts for students of different abilities.

“I could see that everyone was being challenged,” he said. “I wanted to take the class.”

On a recent afternoon, the school resembled a particularly challenging spot-the-difference picture. Elaborate student art adorned the walls; a potential song list for a coming dance was filled with inappropriate suggestions; in a rapid-fire math class, students leaned forward, calling out answers and flinging up their hands.

But there were subtle differences from a typical middle school. Some of the chairs were on sliders, letting students rock subtly back and forth. Instead of bells to signal the end of classes, computers emitted soft music to accommodate students with auditory issues. Desks were designed with bars the perfect height for resting fidgety feet.

This year, school officials have experimented with providing snacks throughout the school day.

“It cuts down on behavior issues because they’re not hungry all the time,” Ms. Bergeson said.

Teachers also reflect the school’s population: The chess teacher has cerebral palsy, the American Sign Language teacher is deaf and a student teacher uses a wheelchair. The goal, said Ms. Bergeson: “providing models and demystifying the idea that difference is scary.”

Parents of typically developing children praised the school for teaching their children empathy, while challenging them academically. Parents of special-needs students described the school as a lifeline.

Carolyn Kelson struggled to find a kindergarten program for her son, Dashiell, who suffered from extreme anxiety, speech and language issues, and had trouble handling social situations. He didn’t match admissions criteria for any of the city’s special-needs schools.

Ms. Kelson enrolled him in Ideal’s kindergarten seven years ago. Now in sixth grade, Dashiell, 12, has flourished, she said. He does accelerated class work in some subjects and receives support in others, helping to bring him up to, or surpass, grade level in every subject.

His anxiety at school has faded and “he views himself as a leader,” she said. No one is concerned if he stands up during class—an acceptance that also benefits her “typical” 9-year-old son, Lev, who is also enrolled in the school, she said. “He can be as weird as he wants to be,” she said. If Lev starts to fidget, he can sit on the bouncy ball. If he chews on his shirt, teachers hand him some gum. “He would totally be fine in a typical setting, but I think he would probably end up being in trouble more,” she said. Now, Ms. Kelson said, she is open to enrolling her children in the high school. “I’ll be interested to see how it goes next year,” she said. “I’m watching.”

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