Plans are in the works for the opening in Stratford of a private school for children with multiple learning disabilities.
Andrea Kelly, founder and principal of Mastery Academy which opened in January 2002 in Mississauga, said in a recent interview she expects to see a school up and running in Stratford by September 2005. A real estate agent is currently scouting out possible locations for the facility, said Kelly, who lives in Stratford with her husband David Hill, vice-principal of the Mississauga school. They hope to begin the school with an enrolment of about 15 and expect it to grow, within five years, to at least 30 and no more than 50.
Mastery Academy differs in many respects from traditional schools in that it teaches not only academics but uses various methods to help students develop cognitive skills that allow them to learn better.
Beginning in 1993, Kelly taught mostly high school with the Durham Catholic School Board in Pickering before taking a year's leave of absence during which time she started tutoring in a "very small enterprise" out of her home. After that year, she returned to teach at a Catholic school in Toronto and over that period, she took a course called the Arrowsmith Program, which uses a number of exercises in unconventional classrooms to strengthen areas of the brain.
Soon, she was approached by the program coordinator to start a satellite school and though she was reluctant at first, she eventually agreed to do so. Located in a former Montessori school in Mississauga and registered and approved by the Ministry of Education, the new school attracted 14 students in its first year, which Kelly thought was a good number. Two years later, the enrolment is 32.
At first, Kelly's school used the Arrowsmith program, but eventually switched to another called PACE (Processing and Cognitive Enhancement) after Kelly went for training in Colorado. The school teaches academic subjects but also helps children develop cognitive skills such as memory, attentiveness, focus, processing, and processing speed.
Kelly said that, for example, a child with poor memory skills cannot function in a classroom because he or she can't retain information, and are almost like an Alzheimer sufferer.
"What we do is very brain-specific, trying to integrate all aspects of the brain, getting the left hemisphere working with the right, the front with the back, the bottom with the top.
"This will help the child who can function much more effectively."
For example, a child will listen to an CD containing different lengths of sounds - a short beat, followed by a long beat - and learns how to tell the difference. It becomes relevant when he or she is learning to read and listening to the sounds words make and their frequency.
Along with working on visual and auditory memory, the school improves a child's tactile (or muscle) memory, because children with learning disabilities are ofen not efficient with their bodies. The students are blindfolded and given sheets of paper with various foam shapes attached. Later, they are asked to recreate on paper what they felt.
"The outcome is not so important as how they do it," said Kelly. "The focus is on giving them skills."
Auditory training is also necessary to help some children filter out background noise such as that generated by a clock ticking, a fluorescent light or someone behind them. "That's why they have trouble listening in a classroom. They can't have good selective attention."
Kelly's search for even more ways to enhance her students' ability to learn took her to Paris where she met the founders of a program called Bellefonds Institute Learning Strategies and students now receive a half hour of that training every day.
Mastery Academy teaches regular subjects in split-grade classrooms, where students are arranged by skill level, not age. "We give them the subjects as they can handle them, not because of their age level," said Kelly.
The students also are given exercises in sensory-motor integration to help their hand-to-eye coordination and their balance, further enabling their cognitive skills.
Though the school is registered and approved by the Ministry of Education, it receives no funds for it. However, said Kelly, it can offer tax exemptions for medical expenses for those children for whom this education is medically necessary.
"Parents can apply and in most cases, they can qualify for it as long as their child has a learning disability documented by a psychologist. They can write off the entire tuition. They wouldn't get it all back but they would get some, depending on their income.
"It's a considerable amount, depending on their income."
The school is not a non-profit venture, and the costs of running it are very high, said Kelly. In Mississauga, nine people - administrators, teachers and therapists - are employed for 32 students. The full-time tuition is $14,000 a year plus a $1,500 fee for a three-day mandatory testing do determine each child's precise learning problems. Kelly expects, however, the overhead costs in Stratford to be less.
Originally from Woodstock, Kelly has always been interested in this area which, she said, is very underdeveloped in terms of the resources available for children with learning difficulties.
"There are a lot of children with autism in the London to Windsor area. There is a big population of children with learning problems with not a lot of resources for them.
"We're in a niche market," said Kelly, who expects the Stratford school will draw students not just from this city and immediate area but from London and Kitchener-Waterloo. The Mississauga school draws students from Rockwood, Guelph and Georgetown.
"Obviously there is an interest and a need."
Kelly said the school's success can be attributed to the fact that it is offering services no other school is and is the only one in Canada to offer the Bellefonds program, started in France by a team of doctors including a neurologist, an orthopedic surgeon and two neuropsychologists.
Last summer, Kelly also flew to Seattle to take a sensory-motor course called Balametrics. Now, the school's program is totally Bellefonds and Balametrics, and Arrowsmith is not used any longer.
Kelly said her school does not use "accommodating" methods with the students, reading to them or letting them listen to tapes if they can't read. They don't remediate.
"We get to the parts of the brain that are cognitive, creating new neurotransmitters. The public system modifies its programs - shortens assignments, giving more time for tests.
"We work with the children to be able to do these things for themselves. At our school they will learn to read and write because we got to the source of the problem."
In the home they bought in Stratford, Kelly and her husband are able to take some children on a tutoring basis in a part attached to their house that once served as a chiropractic clinic.
When the Stratford school is up and running, an administrator will be hired for the Mississauga school and Kelly and her husband will work here.
The Stratford school will always be kept small, said Kelly.
"None of these kids have had a sense of safety at school," she said. "A small school gives them a safer environment. It's a lot more intimate. They get to know each other better and the staff know the children very well.
"The children feel supported and emotionally safe. That can only happen in a smaller environment."
Mastery Academy takes children as young as six years of age up to Grade 8, but children, in one class, might range in age from six to 10 depending on their level.
"We group them according to their ability rather than their age."
The classrooms, too, are different. "You don't see teachers at the front of a room explaining a lesson," said Kelly. "That's a teacher-centred classroom and we have child-centred classrooms. We group our kids to work together. They learn better that way. They're all working at a level which is within their ability."
Those who wish can contact Andrea Kelly to determine interest in a full-day or after-school program. To reach her, call 272-0801 or check out the schoool's website www.masteryacademyschool.com.