Dispatches > In Brief

In Brief

News highlights from around the world

Issue: "The Road to Damascus," Sept. 21, 2002

Turned around

We have some very angry children. One was like a bull breathing out. He had been expelled for fighting. We get wallflower children. Or we get children who are aggressive verbally."

Marilyn Anderson, founder of Gateway School in Anchorage, Alaska, was talking about kids in her school who have spent years failing in their major elementary task: learning to read. Gateway, a school for dyslexic children, is a rarity in the world of Christian education, where many schools do not work with children who have special needs.

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Although Gateway accepts students at age 6, its average student age is 12½. The gap reflects years of waiting on the part of parents hoping that each year will bring success in a traditional school. For many bright dyslexic students the gap represents years of feeling dumb and being placed in public-school special-education classes with children who have mild brain damage or emotional difficulties.

Dyslexia is a brain processing disorder that makes it difficult for kids to perform many language-based skills. When Marilyn Anderson taught in Christian schools in the 1970s, she says, many teachers didn't understand dyslexia and assumed it reflected laziness or poor habits. "I saw teachers chide parents," she said. They'd tell them their children "needed to work harder, they needed to behave."

Other schoolteachers, not knowing what to do, often did the wrong thing. "They gave sympathy rather than compassion," Mrs. Anderson said. "Instead of teaching a child the way he needed to learn, they reduced expectations."

In 1983 Mrs. Anderson started Gateway School in her basement with seven students. Nancy K. Smith, a nurse who had a son with severe dyslexia, joined her in 1986. Later Bev Lau, who is now director of the school, joined the effort.

From the beginning Gateway offered a rigorous curriculum but tailored it to meet the needs of individual students: Gateway teachers learn to "teach to the individual, not the curriculum." Last year the school had 36 students, with three full-time teachers and several part-time ones. Children are grouped by reading level, not age. Small classes and individualized tutoring are costly but key components of the school. Gateway uses a reading method called Slingerland, named after Beth Slingerland, who adapted the Orton-Gillingham reading method to classroom use. It is a multi-sensory method that engages at the same time a student's visual, auditory, verbal, and kinesthetic ways of learning. Teachers introduce words and consonants in sequence. Students are taught to see the letter or word, say it, and use their sense of touch to form it.

Mrs. Smith tests potential students to see if they are dyslexic or have some other problem like fetal alcohol syndrome or autism: "If I find that there is a flat line, then there are other problems going on. If there are peaks and valleys, strengths and weaknesses, that's a dyslexic mind."

Some students have social strengths that help them deal with dyslexia, but others dig themselves into deep behavioral holes. That's why the school sets strict behavior guidelines, while recognizing that many children are coming to the school after years of failure. "If we can teach them, if they begin to learn, the behavior stops," Mrs. Anderson said.

Gateway is expensive to operate because of its small classes, low teacher-student ratio, and extensive teacher training and monitoring. Its tuition is $7,000, about $3,000 more than the typical Anchorage Christian school; Gateway receives no support from a denomination or local church. Rising tuition has placed the school out of reach for many families, but overall demand from Christian and non-Christian parents remains high.

Meanwhile, Gateway's mission statement is clear: "Gateway School and Learning Center is committed to high quality education from a Christian perspective for students with dyslexia." Students, as Mrs. Anderson notes, "come knowing that we pray every morning. And that we are going to talk about God as a reality of our school." | Susan Olasky

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