With her book No Bad Dogs, Barbara Woodhouse made us realize our canine pets are not inherently badly behaved - it's all in the training we give them.
Today, more and more parents, with an unconscious nod to Woodhouse, have a new mantra: No bad kids, no dumb kids. Not satisfied with reports that their children are simply failures at school, they want to know why - and what can be done about it.
The public system has responded with reading clinics, special-ed classes and other remedial measures, although many of these programs have been slashed in education cutbacks.
Now many of those parents are
seeking out independent and private schools that have designed programs for their child's particular problem and, along the way, are changing our ideas of what a school is supposed to look like.
The Robert Land Academy, for instance, is a military-style rural
boarding school for teenage boys with behavioural problems. Arrowsmith School is a 1,600-square-foot mini-school for children with learning disabilities.
At Star Academy, a small school for 35 students housed at present in two rented rooms in a Mississauga public school (but due to have its own
building this fall), director Belinda Bernardo is reinventing the one-room
schoolhouse, where children of mixed ages and abilities work together.
The contrasts may be deceptive. As Allan Spaan, administrative officer at Robert Land, in Wellandport, Ontario, acknowledges, many of the 160 boys at the school might not have needed its ultra-disciplined approach if their
difficulties had been recognized earlier. Many of their parents, he says, had reached "a state of desperation."
Interestingly, the move toward
helping children who "fall through the cracks," as Bernardo puts it, has received much of its stimulus from adults who themselves were failed by the education system.
Montcrest School, for example, a sunny academy where 34 of the 295 students are in a learning-disability program,
runs out of a magnificent old house overlooking the Don Valley in Toronto that was donated in 1961 by the family of the late Toni Gundy. A generous and always discreet philanthropist, Gundy often spoke of how unrecognized
learning disabilities had blighted her early life.
Barbara Arrowsmith Young, who devised the Arrowsmith program, recalls that as a child she "read
everything backwards." Getting into education was a way of solving her own problems, she says, and it wasn't until she was doing her master's degree in 1978 that she came across Russian research that described her disabilities exactly.
Young's program is now used not only at her own Arrowsmith School but in two Toronto-area separate schools. There's no glossing over the fact that her approach is rigorous. The 20 children at her school, aged from six to 17, spend part of each day on computer programs designed to re-wire their brains.
If you switch on one of the computers at Arrowsmith School, Arabic appears on the screen. It's not that the children are learning Arabic, Young says. They are learning to recognize the symbols for "cat," for instance, and then to pick out those symbols in a page of Arabic writing. It's training the brain to
recognize symbols independent of the lettering we see all around us.
After three or four years in the
program, children return to regular schooling with the tools for learning, and Arrowsmith claims an 80 per cent success record.
At Montcrest, principal Elaine Danson says, what sets apart its
students - both those with diagnosed learning disabilities and those without - is that they used to be
The school gears its program to the learning-disabled child. But Danson says she suspects the biggest help for all her students is the school's abiding philosophy: Small classes (a 7:1
pupil-teacher ratio), a love of learning and an integrated program of music, art and drama.
Often little divides gifted children from those labelled learning disabled: The winner of the school's
public-speaking contest last year was
a learning disabled student in Grade 7.
Integration is also the guiding
principle at Star Academy. "There's nothing new in education," says
Her school is like the one-room
schoolhouse - only better, Bernardo says. Older students, gifted students, help the others, and that augments an already low pupil-teacher ratio of one teacher for every seven to 10 students.
Star Academy, which now has 35 pupils from junior kindergarten to Grade 8, is on the brink of expansion, with its enrolment going to about 80 when its new building, which includes a double gym, is completed.
The Robert Land Academy, on the other hand, is a last-ditch effort to help boys 12 to 19 turned off by the system. Many parents would hesitate before
sending their teenage sons to a school that features uniforms, drills and
However, Spaan says, there is often little choice when boys are not attending school, are in with the wrong crowd and might be into substance abuse.
How do the boys respond to 6 a.m. wake-up calls, drill before class and lights out by 9:30 p.m.?
Ruth Kreller, whose son, Justin, 15, has been at the school for two years, says: "When we came for the interview, I thought he would wet himself. When we got back into the car, he said he was not coming here! I brought him anyway. And I think it's just the best thing I've ever done.
"Now he's grateful. He sees the change in himself and he sees that life has so much more to offer now."
Alexi Mikhailets, 14, whose family came from Russia, had been expelled from his previous school. Now he describes Star as "a good academy. It's helped me a lot with my social skills and my academics. My marks came up from 52 per cent to 83 per cent. It's pretty hard: They discipline you when you do
something wrong, but the hardest it gets is laps or long laps."
Alexi was planning to be back at Robert Land this fall - unless, as he hopes, the head master at his former school invites him back.
Special needs schooling does not come cheaply. Fees at Robert Land are $26,950 a year, and at the day schools mentioned here range from $9,000 to $18,700. One compensation: Where a learning disability has been diagnosed, school fees can be charged against taxes.
For information about other
special needs schools, call the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario at (416) 929-4311 or visit its Web site at www.ldao.on.ca.