By Joanna Manning
Tucked away in a sunny corner of the Upper School library, the learning resource center might be mistaken for a casual gathering space. On any given day, students can be found clustered around the learning specialist’s desk, talking through strategies for managing time or stress, getting help with a paper, or preparing for an AP exam. Some are making arrangements to test in a quiet space. Others are discovering how their different learning needs can be accommodated. The flow of students is nearly constant.
Whenever visiting independent school leaders tour Charles Wright, they often comment on the welcoming feel of the resource center. Head of School Matt Culberson shares this view. “I have been so impressed at how there is no stigma in our Upper School to get help from the learning specialist. It’s almost a place where people want to go. It feels that supportive.”
Creating that supportive environment has been a deliberate effort of the student support teams and an integral part of the school’s commitment to care. Mr. Culberson notes that once a student has been admitted to Charles Wright, “we have implicitly made a commitment to that student and their family to serve them through their career here.” Whether that means working with the University Place School District to develop service plans for individual students with learning disabilities, or simply supporting students as they develop socially, emotionally, and intellectually, Charles Wright faculty and staff are committed to helping students achieve their potential.
To accomplish this, the school uses an integrated approach to student support, involving learning specialists, counselors, and divisional leadership to identify students who are in need of enrichment, remediation, or social and emotional support. “Learning issues and emotional issues often go hand-in-hand,” says Upper School Learning Specialist Sinead Coleman, who frequently collaborates with Upper School Counselor Gina Dean when students are struggling academically. This is why the care team model is so critical to student success.
Emotional support is just as vital in the Middle and Lower Schools as well. Lower School Learning Specialist Mary Cole works closely with the rest of the student support team and also spends time in each Lower School classroom getting to know the students and their educational needs. She says, “we’re a normal part of the classroom. I think that kids appreciate that. They seek out the help.”
Encouraging kids to seek out help is one of the primary goals of the learning specialists, and Ms. Cole stresses the importance of teaching the students to advocate for themselves. “We’re trying to empower them and teach them more about how they learn and to ask for what they need so that they can be successful at school,” she says. In the Middle School, when the tumult of early adolescence is at its peak, Middle School Learning Specialist Lisa West works with students on everything from organization to resilience. “We try to encourage these students to have a growth mindset, to take risks, and to not be afraid of failure,” she says.
“I tell them they need to learn from their mistakes in order to see growth.”
This is an attitude the learning specialists try to impart to all students, not just those with learning differences. There is not a one-size-fits-all method to education. Everyone learns differently, and students need to understand how they learn best.
Ms. West can see a transformation take place when students are empowered to take charge of their own learning and to persevere through challenges. “When students initially struggle but then try out different strategies to get the results that they want on a quiz or a test, I can see the overall excitement about learning,” she says. “They’re thinking, ‘I can really do this. It might have taken me a different way to get here, but I can be successful.’”
Ms. Coleman takes a similar view. “Whenever student says, ‘I can’t,’ I say, ‘You just can’t yet.’