"The school wraps itself around each individual student and so finds its shape instead of each student trying to fit into some standard pigeonhole at the school." – that was how a mother described Easton Country Day to us.
We were intrigued. We had arranged a visit and had arrived just as the first flakes of an unexpected snowstorm began to fall hours before a much forecasted Nor'Easter. These two combined storms would add up to one that would be even bigger and last longer than what we already faced and dreaded. And so the school office was abuzz with the excitement of another snow day and several children calling their parents to arrange for early pickups. We were met initially by the secretary and then an energetic fellow in a sweatshirt that seemed like a fascinating character suitable for absent-minded chemistry professor or rugby coach. He quickly adopted the task of extending a warm welcome and assuring us, each time he sprinted past the glass wall, that they would find the principal who was obviously not in her office.
I could see what was taking so long. As she made her way to the office, the principal was approached by each passing student who she chatted with or tapped a shoulder affectionately. When she entered, she reassured a worried red-haired girl that they would get in touch with her parents and if not, she'd give her a ride home herself. She hugged an older girl who could not contain her excitement about the early release. All the children gravitated to her and with each, she warmly received them just as she eventually warmly received us.
We chatted for a while in a small conference room. We started by explaining our interest in private schools and describing our children. I am very candid about my children, both their strengths and their apparent weaknesses (which I actually think include a number of strengths). Instead of a quiet control taking over her features and shielding her eyes, instead of obvious concern about managing a child on the Spectrum or a young girl with an overactive interest in the visual arts, she leaned forward and offered not just congenial warmth but most importantly, a sincere attraction to our children. And she was interested in the whole picture. Not just the superior and high average ratings but also the interesting personalities. And she seemed to understand perfectly not only the sort of children I was describing but also the problems we had faced. And she offered an empathetic appreciation that the struggles our children faced were not acceptable nor were they "their" problems simply because their school would not claim any sort of responsibility for them.
As we began the tour, we passed the office of the bright-eyed sweatshirt-wearing rugby professor who turned out to be the leader of a program called "original play" – just one of the many aspects of the school that actively focuses not only on academic growth but also the social development of all the students.
During the tour, it became evident that she didn't intend to over explain or market the school to us, but that she did expect us to perceive much of what was happening ourselves — and we did. We saw a young boy skipping down the hall between classrooms. She was ready to respond to our questioning glances once they turned to her. This child, as part of their vertically integrated program, was moving from his second grade class to a math program that best suited his skills which in his case were more advanced than other children his age. Next, we entered a quiet, orderly classroom of children intently listening to a teacher reading a story and then followed to wildly decorated classroom that by comparison to the other might seem disheveled or unorganized with students working independently at their desks. She explained that each classroom was distinct, some offering structure and others much less so. Children are placed in the environment that best suits their preferred learning style and needs. But all classrooms offered a variety of settings; individual desks, group tables and soft areas and, what our eyes had become fixated upon, headphones for children who wish to concentrate more. In this class, a child wore large padded, noise-canceling headphones. She must've known we'd recognize the value of headphones, she must've realized it would resonate with us and our hopes for C.S. She gave us time to see how seamlessly this child fit in, how normal it was to wear them. I know she knew because she patiently waited just the perfect amount of time for the emotion and tears that had welled up in our eyes to subside. The headphones were not a modification, they were a typical option. Of course we appreciated how that sort of nuance would make a world of difference.
There was a theater and a production underway, something unavailable to our daughter at her current school. The imaginative art in the hallway illustrated so much more than the children ever knew. And as we saw class after small class of twelve students with two teachers each my husband and I looked knowingly at each other, no longer questioning anything because we were already sold. And then, she then led us to the another hall. On our way there we ran into a jubilant young lady. Once past she explained that this young girl was repeatedly reprimanded in her former school for singing in the bathrooms. At ECD, she found not only a supportive music program, but also a supportive school environment that welcomed her voice and celebrated her talent. For example, while visiting an aquarium, the class was watching a tank of sea turtles or something that was accompanied by a musician when she broke out into song. Can you imagine? A high school girl spontaneously serenading sea turtles before a whole classroom of peers? But she did and was applauded for it, so much so that the school and her extemporaneous additions were invited to return which they had this year. The principal related story after story of children the school had supported in following their individual interests until as high school students they found ways to help students run a vegetarian restaurant or connect with a local museum to gain more in-depth knowledge about anthropology.
And then we arrived at our destination and she invited us to peek through the window into a class with one teacher and one student. She explained that this student initially arrived at ECD not as part of the student body but merely to share the facilities. His parents had requested use of a classroom where he could meet with a team of private specialists — Autism specialists. He was on the Spectrum, apparently barely verbal when he arrived and was never expected to mainstream with other students. But at some point, and I can so well imagine how this could happen, the parents ran out of funds to keep the specialists on board. And so the school then offered to build a program around this boy. I was so deeply touched by how incredibly responsive they were to each child's needs, but this was really so much, I swelled with gratitude that such a school could even exist.
Be it a boy who excels at math, a girl inspired to sing spontaneously or a student who has truly individual needs, this school had succeeded in creating an environment that welcomed all sorts of idiosyncratic strengths and interests. It provided not only a strong academic program but also a wonderful culture for students to mature into well-rounded and wonderful characters. Exactly what I have always wished for my children.
Silver Lining: I found it. I thought such a program could exist and one does. Here, educators actively access all their training to form a program that responds to students individual needs. ALL students. The whole school is on an IEP! I really think this could work for us.