Sara arrived like a beautifully wrapped present. The package was smaller than we expected – four pounds, eleven ounces – but we were delighted to receive her; she was perfect, just what we wanted! As the weeks, months and years went by, the wrapping was steadily shed, revealing new wonders: an openness to the world; acute sense of humor; keen curiosity; sensitive heart.
We ushered Sara, now a child, into the formal education process, kindergarten. The unwrapping continued in the academic realm: a preference for visual, over auditory, learning; a spirited willingness to engage in group exercises; a gift at storytelling. Sometimes the revelations seem to require a response – why is she having trouble holding a pen – but with no owners’ manual, and a school system that finds it challenging to cope with diversity of any kind, it wasn’t always clear what should be done.
Sara’s second grade academic reveal, at Alvarado Elementary School, suggested difficulty with reading. During class time dedicated to individual, silent, reading, she watched to see when her peers turned the pages of their books, doing the same on cue, even though she hardly comprehended the words passing by her eyes. When we discovered she was lagging behind, she was placed in a reading recovery program, which involved taking her out of math class to be taught reading.
Her reading was righted; her math skills, unsurprisingly, plummeted, triggering what emerged as a years-long struggle with numbers. We spent thousands of dollars on mathematic tutors. Some seemed excellent, others not so much. Sara intermittently fought with them all. Her math skills advanced slowly, as if she was dog paddling in the ocean alongside a few other numerically challenged peers while a vessel filled with her classmates steamed directly away.
We abandoned the public school ship, hoping that an independent education would unlock Sara’s secrets of learning. Now tens of thousands of dollars were being spent. At her new school, Brandeis, her fifth and sixth grade math teacher held her close, and Sara gained traction up slopes and variables. But the teacher left and the spin cycle of tutors began once more, into high school.
Near the end of her freshman year at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, Sara had gotten so far behind in math it threatened her ability to stay at the school. Other students who’d fared as poorly in the subject had been counseled to go elsewhere. My wife, Debbie, and I were called into the head of school’s office to discuss Sara’s future. I listened to the preliminary chit-chat with a familiar dread dully thumping in my heart, ready to hear bad news, prepared to grope, yet again, in the academic half-darkness to find another way to help Sara succeed. Instead, the head of school threw us a life preserver.
He started by flatly acknowledging that, in prior cases, a student with Sara’s academic profile would’ve been escorted, gently, but firmly, out the door. Three things kept that from happening: Debbie and my (financial) willingness to surround our daughter with extra help; the fact that Sara was doing well in all her classes except math; and her compassionate, determined, spirit, which contributed to the school community. He proposed that rather than leaving JCHS, Sara exit its math program, taking the subject at place that better matched how she learned.
Adoption of this strategy would create a fourth reason to keep Sara: she’d be the first scholastic pioneer to retain JCHS as her home while relying on another school to teach her an essential subject. If successful, she could help revolutionize JCHS’ educational approach, opening up opportunities for diverse learners to seek what they need at other academic institutions, or even at other places of learning, such as museums, think-tanks, and research organizations.
We were delighted, and, surprisingly, so was Sara. We thought she’d fight against the difference that’d be prominently exhibited by her absence from JCHS math. Instead, she acknowledged that she was arithmetically drowning, desperately wanted help. Before the freshman year ended, we’d found a teacher at Fusion Academy San Francisco, an accredited private school for grades six to 12 that specializes in one-on-one learning. More money spent; there’s no JCHS discount for relieving them of the math teaching burden. Debbie and I tossed in our sleeps, hoping the strategy would work, worried about what we’d do if it didn’t.
After each session Sara’s teacher, Adam, emailed us a progress report. They were so immediately remarkable that we almost didn’t believe them: “Sara’s doing great in math, and mastering concepts at a steady speed…Sara sometimes needs more time to grasp a concept, but she always finds a way to get there…” In a couple of months Sara had caught up with the material she was supposed to have learned in her freshman year, ready to move on. What’s more, she was eager to go to math class, buoyant afterwards, even volunteering to continue the lessons through the summer to make sure she was fully caught up. This was unprecedented. How had it happened?
It was Sara who explained the breakthrough. Tutors, she told us, were fine, but while they were busy helping her master a concept she hadn’t yet grasped, the rest of the class moved on, creating a kind of always-behind, headache-inducing, whipsaw effect; she never caught up with the herd. This, in turn, deeply embedded an anxiety that she couldn’t shake in the classroom; she wasn’t able to fully concentrate amidst the pool of other students visibly grappling with the concepts. One-on-one, consistent, consolidated learning, by a skilled teacher, was the key.
Sara’s experience, her breakthrough, points the way for the legions of families similarly dealing with learning challenges, or yearning for a more expansive instructive experience. In addition to specialized schools, home schooling, and tutors, there’s an educational pathway that remains largely unexplored, outside of sports: creating a scholastic web of learning opportunities, rather than relying exclusively on a single campus.
Under this approach a sixth through 12 grade “campus” could serve as home base and quality control, while enabling its students to create a course mix from a plethora of places, a kind of expansive dim sum learning. San Francisco is especially well-suited to this approach, with the potential to create accredited one-off classes at different schools that specialize in specific methods – one-on-one teaching at Fusion, religious studies at JCHS, theater at the School of the Arts – as well as art at the Museum of Modern Art, De Young Museum, or even Disney; math at the Exploratorium; science at the Academy of Sciences; industrial arts at the Pier 70 shipyard, or perhaps a construction site; history at a host of organizations, all accessible by public transportation.
Waves of students with learning differences, as well as restless minds not satisfied with what’s offered in a classroom’s four corners, crash against our schools’ shoals. Many of them fail, out of a subject or high school entirely, because they can’t afford to pursue the same opportunities Sara has had, and with no effective alternative available, regardless of money. Meanwhile, our City, and the surrounding region, offers a cornucopia of exhilarating educational possibilities. We should leverage the former to benefit the latter, to create a course catalogue that’s inexpensive, exciting, enlightening, and deeply engaging. The world is our educational oyster; we should dive in.