ENZO FINALLY ENJOYS GOING TO SCHOOL
Before Sand Hill School, Enzo hated going to school. When it was time to get ready for school, he’d complain of tummy aches. At the end of the day when his mother Kelly, would ask him about his day, he’d cry, “I don’t want to talk about it. I got a time out.”
In his early years, Kelly couldn’t understand Enzo’s screaming and fighting when she tried to dress him in jeans, washed his hair or when he got something gooey on his skin like yogurt. But when Enzo started working with an occupational therapist, Kelly learned about sensory processing disorder and began to make sense of his behavior. Working with a psychologist and occupational therapist significantly diminished Enzo’s meltdowns, but he still struggled in school.
At preschool Enzo would hide under the table or run around the room and refuse to join the circle. Traditional approaches didn’t provide the support he needed, but none of his teachers had any suggestions for alternative schools.
After visiting five schools, Kelly finally learned about Sand Hill School. While she feels frustrated that it took her so long to find Sand Hill, she says, “They’re doing a wonderful job with him.” Enzo has responded to the positive attitude and small class size. His teacher, Heather Whitlock, MA, says Enzo brings many strengths to the classroom. “He’s highly verbal and can tell stories that compare his experiences to what we’re learning,” she says. “He’s caring and often a leader.”
“I’m happy that Enzo is happy and learning,” says Kelly. “After school he gets in the car and talks about his day without my having to ask. This week he’s excited about minerals and birthstones. He told me that a mineral is a crystal and wanted to know his birthstone.”
When Kelly reflects on her experience, she reflects the love of an accepting mother, “We knew he was different, but he’s Enzo.” She also knew he was too social to be home schooled.
Undaunted by the commute from San Jose to Palo Alto, Kelly says, “When I’m driving him to school, sometimes I cry—I’m so happy we found this place.”
TOM’S CONFIDENCE SOARS AS HE ACHIEVES READING AT GRADE LEVEL
“It’s the little moments,” says Janet as she reflects on what gave her confidence that Sand Hill School was the right place for her son, Tom. She remembers one of the first times she picked Tom up at the end of the day at Sand Hill School to go to his swimming lesson. He didn’t want to go to swimming. She tried to persuade him as his first-grade teacher Nick Ratcliff, MA, stood by. Tom’s whining notched up and Janet was at a loss until Mr. Ratcliff stepped in.
“I used to do that to my mom. It’s hard to make transitions, isn’t it, Tom?” he said.
Janet tears up as she remembers Mr. Ratcliff’s insight. “That little observation helped both of us understand what was making life hard for Tom. Being able to understand when your kid is worried and upset is a gift. The people at Sand Hill School are outstanding and know what they’re doing,” she says.
Coming to Sand Hill School was a pivotal moment for Tom and his family. Six-year-old Tom, typically vivacious, sensitive and curious was miserable in his first-grade classroom at a highly-acclaimed Palo Alto public school. He excelled on the playground, had lots of friends and outshined his peers with his imagination. He spent hours drawing each day, but practicing reading and writing challenged him. “Tom knew he was working twice as hard as the other kids,” says his mother Janet, “but he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t keep up academically.”
To compensate for not making progress, Tom distinguished himself by being the funny guy and disrupting class. As his situation worsened, he started having sleepless nights. His parents grew increasingly alarmed. It was difficult to understand why the school that was working so well for their older daughter wasn’t working for their son. “When your child isn’t on the trajectory that you imagined, it’s a moment of truth,” says Tom’s father Simon. They weren’t sure what to do. “There’s no owner’s manual for these moments,” laments Simon.
Janet credits Tom’s public school teacher for raising the flag to get Tom more support. “The school went out of its way,” says Janet, “to offer him resources and programs.” But the remedial tutoring it offered and the one-on-one support the family sought from an experienced private special education tutor wasn’t enough to get Tom on track with his peers.
“We had to take charge,” says Simon. “The best six hours of Tom’s day were being spent in a classroom that wasn’t right for him. We just couldn’t do that to him.” Janet adds that Tom’s old school didn’t work for him because the program encouraged self-motivated learning. Tom, she says, has learning challenges that leave him struggling in such an environment.
His public school suggested holding him back a year to give him the gift of time to allow Tom to mature. But his tutor countered, “What about the gift of more resources?” This made sense to the family who felt that repeating a grade would be more of the same and wouldn’t help their son with his challenges. It wasn’t until they visited Sand Hill School that it became clear that it was the right environment to help their son.
After only two and a half months at Sand Hill School, Tom was reading words at grade level. Now in second grade, he is proud of the academic work he’s bringing home. “He’s always been proud of what he could draw,” says Janet, “but the other day, for the first time, he brought home his writing to show us.”
Janet balances her enthusiasm, saying, “I have to be honest; it was really hard for Tom to change schools. Sand Hill School has extremely good resources, but Tom missed his friends from his previous school especially during recess. It’s been tricky for him socially.” At the same time, Janet is thrilled with the creative problem solving of Tom’s teacher, Melissa Fedoronko, MEd. Mrs. Fedoronko offered to make Tom captain of games at recess. The family thought it was a brilliant way to address the issue.
Collaborating with parents and building trust with students is critical to Sand Hill School’s success. Mrs. Fedoronko says that Tom has not only made tremendous strides academically, but he is also able to better manage his frustration and anxiety. Instead of going home and venting about things he is frustrated about on the playground, Mrs. Fedoronko suggested that Janet and Simon encourage Tom to send her an email when there’s something bothering him. When Tom later sent an email about a grievance he had, it gave Tom and his teacher a chance to discuss the circumstances and clarify a misunderstanding Tom had about the rules. His grievance became secondary. “It helped him see that he could do something with his feelings and that his teachers are open to listening to him,” says Mrs. Fedoronko.
Recently when Janet asked Tom if he wanted to send an email to his teacher about a complaint he brought home, he declined, saying, “No, it’s a small problem.” Mrs. Fedoronko was thrilled to hear that Tom was able to apply a social-emotional lesson he learned in class (“The Size of the Problem”).
To build on Tom’s strengths, Mrs. Fedoronko used Tom’s interest in sciences and dinosaurs as inspiration and tweaked the curriculum to include a unit on dinosaurs. The month-long unit culminated in a series of presentations to other classrooms and parents. “Tom is curious and articulate,” Mrs. Fedoronko says. “The project allowed him to share what he knows, develop presentation skills and build on his strengths.” The impact on Tom: Janet tells Mrs. Fedoronko he looks forward to coming to school now. “Being able to demonstrate the depth of his ‘expertise’ was the most incredible boost for Tom’s confidence,” adds Janet. “I think it accelerated his rate of learning generally.”
Even Tom has grown to understand his situation. A few weeks ago, he told his mom, “I think Sand Hill School is a good school for me. The work is a bit easier and I can keep up.” The goal is to prepare Tom for grade-level work in a mainstream classroom. “When students are asked to reach academic goals that are out of their reach,” says Cindy Lopez, Head of Sand Hill School, “they get overwhelmed, feel stupid and often give up. Our teachers have the flexibility to set realistic learning goals and to keep adjusting the goals based on the students’ progress.”
Janet and Simon say they couldn’t be happier with Tom’s quality of learning. Simon reports, “Tom feels better about himself. He’s becoming a bit of a leader and his emotional state is reinforcing his academic progress.”
Tom’s family allows that Sand Hill School is big investment that they weren’t planning on. But the family feels that helping their son feel good about himself and getting him on a positive path is one of the most important things they could do in their lives. “What else is there?” says Simon.