Tuesday, June 27th, 2006
Sanford Shapiro looks at The Charles Armstrong School
Ã‚Â© 2006 Sanford Shapiro
I first heard about the Charles Armstrong School back in 1983. I had just gotten hired as the first teacher of an about-to-be-opened school for dyslexic learners in Monterey, California. Our founding director was a former faculty member of the Charles Armstrong School. His vision was to be more than just a good Slingerland School (group teaching model of Orton Gillingham, for dyslexic students). We felt that we needed to be able to expand out from and surpass the qualities of a good remedial school even though that was our primary focus. Since he was coming from years of working at Charles Armstrong, I always assumed that Charles Armstrong School was “just” a good Slingerland School. Whether or not that was true back in 1983, nothing could be further from the truth now. C.A.S as it’s known, has become so much more than a good “remedial” school. It is a first class organization centered on giving the best possible educational experiences it can to elementary through junior high aged children with specific learning differences.
C.A.S is located in the densely populated area of the south bay (San Francisco)/northern reaches of Silicon Valley, CA. In fact the only distressful part of the CAS experience is the morning traffic snarl through the small city of Belmont. Once you arrive on campus, whether you’re a student, faculty, or visitor, it’s pretty easy to be there. The feeling you get once on campus is of accessibility. I don’t mean accessibility from the usual “easiness of getting around the facility” perspective. I mean there is sense of confidence in what everyone’s doing, and that every part of the operation of the school seems relatively transparent. In my experience over the years with CAS, I have been increasingly impressed with their ease and high degree of sharing information with anyone who shows interest. That ranges from research they’ve done, questions they continue to have and successes they’ve enjoyed. They behave like they are truly members of a greater learning community, that they are colleagues with anyone interested in working well with students who happen to be dyslexic.
Not to wax poetic about this “transparency” but it carries over to the classroom. First impression of the visit builds from the fact that there is no official tour guide. Though you are given maps and schedules of class changes, you are free to go to various classrooms on your own timing. This works quite well and doesn’t seem to create distractions.
Back to basics: CAS was founded in 1968 in Menlo Park by Dr. Wilbur Mattison. As I mentioned, early in its development they saw themselves primarily invested in remedial work of the reading writing, spelling and math deficits usually associated with a dyslexic learning profile. While they have not strayed from this original mission they have grown outwards to include social skills development programs, a strong visual arts component, ample use of technology, and elective courses. Their technology resources, largely computer-based, are for assistive or compensatory support, instructional enhancement and increasingly for invention and creative curriculum. CAS currently enrolls approximately 245 students from grade one through eight. There are on average about 15 students with two teachers in a class. Each classroom has a small separate area that can easily accommodate a small group, apart from the main room. The language development aspect of the curriculum and instruction (reading spelling, writing) is founded on Orton Gillingham-like principles, multi-sensory, very direct and explicit. Students appeared to me quite engaged and pretty glad to be there, always a good sign. Another interesting indicator is the fact that 40% of the students currently are girls. Some recent research I’ve heard is that dyslexia affects as many girls as it does boys but it is rare to see anything close to those numbers reflected in LD school populations.
The administration does as good a job as I’ve seen in trying to improve their ability to listen to and nurture the creative talents of their staff. There is a logical and well- constructed professional development plan that enables the staff to stay current and supported.
Related at this site: The Charles Armstrong School