Bright classrooms and engaged students working in all different types of environments is what our very own General Counsel turned Special Education Paraprofessional, Terri Renshaw, experienced when touring Eton Academy earlier this month. Ms. Terri along with several other members of the Children Services Network toured Eton Academy in Birmingham to get a feel for their new and improved “digs” and to learn more about how this unique campus in the suburbs of Detroit is educating kiddos with “Learning Differences.”
I was able to experience Eton Academy during Spring 2015 by visiting one of their open house sessions that was more geared towards parents and prospective students. Ms. Terri and I shared similar experiences while on campus – friendly staff, students expressing their individualism, and classrooms that have a welcoming lived in vibe. Ms. Terri took a tour with Ellen Tatone, who has been with Eton for 16 years starting as a teacher in the lower school and is now Director of the Teacher Support Program (TEACHER SUPPORT PROGRAM!!! Be still my beating heart! <3) Ms. Terri recalls from her tour – “I peeked into one classroom (the music room) that I thought was empty because the lights were off. The teacher was in the room. I apologized for disturbing her, but she waved that off, jumped up, introduced herself and extended her hand…good vibe”.
Eton teachers, staff and families expect a well-rounded education that includes social and emotional developmental practices. Practices that prepare each students for LIFE, not just college or career. Eton uses research based teaching methods – and their curriculum expands past text books and paper tests. A few key aspects of the Eton approach stand out to a children’s mental health professional like myself:
1) Each student receives a Personalized Education Program (which may remind Public School families receiving SpEd Services of an IEP) - An individualized plan means you take the time to not only get to know me, but how I tick, what motivates me, what my interests are. Then you tie that to learning outcomes geared towards my success.
2) Over a student’s educational journey, a Student Learning Portfolio is developed including individualized learning goals, a neurodevelopment profile, and assessments that INCLUDE assessment of social and emotional development and other psycho-educational aspects. – Again, a learning portfolio means you take the time to truly know my learning style; where I thrive and where I struggle. The inclusion of social and emotional learning practices mean that you’re interested in my development as a human being, not just as a test score or college acceptance statistic. You want me to be smart, healthy and successful.
3) Teachers serve as advisors for approximately ten students throughout the school year. - Who better to have as an advisor than one of your teachers? Having teachers as academic advisors means incredible accessibility for students. And on the educator side – ten is a pretty reasonable number to check-in on throughout the semester.
Every aspect of the Eton approach circles back to their core belief. Learning happens everywhere, and so the way education is delivered should be adaptable, accessible and engaging for students.
I wrote a post, one of my very first blog posts ever for BlogED about AIM Academy, which is also a wonderful school in metro-Detroit that specializes in educating students with “Learning Differences.” I am the first to defend the argument that EVERY student has a “Learning Difference” because….they’re all different. As educators, it is our job and privilege to tap into that, clear the brush away and encourage students to follow their unique educational path.
Getting to experience schools that specialize in students with “Learning Differences” is a bitter sweet experience for me. My heart swells to see students engaged with teachers who have resources and the option to teach to them and not to the “test”. The other side of the coin is - schools like Eton, like AIM, are the exception not the rule. They’re the WOW, Unique! Not the status quo. And often these exceptions to the rule are not available to students living in impoverished or lower socio-economic areas. Now, Eton does offer scholarship opportunities that address tuition and fees. Their website reports that approx. 20% of their students rely on tuition assistance to get them through each school year. I make this comment not to bash private schools, but to inquire, truly from my heart – why isn’t an individualized education plan accessible to all students?