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Special education charter uses neuroscience to transform students’ lives

By   /   December 29, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo by Moriah Costa

SPECIAL EDUCATION: The hallways at Children’s Guild Brookland campus are built to reflect the Baltimore community.

By Moriah Costa | Watchdog.org

BALTIMORE, Md. — The Monarch Academy charter schools in Baltimore don’t look like traditional schools. Instead, the walls and floors, and sometimes even the ceilings, are painted to help students feel like they are in an atmosphere they know — their backyard or downtown streets.

In some cases the walls reflect what the school is trying to teach its students — how the brain works.

The schools are run by TranZed Alliance, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that has helped the city’s most traumatized and special-needs kids. Operating since 1953, TranZed will soon serve Washington, D.C., students, as well.

Six years ago the nonprofit expanded from special education and opened its first charter school. Now it runs three charters and two nonpublic schools in the Baltimore area. In August 2015, it will open the Children’s Guild Public Charter School to 450 students in D.C,  its first special education campus in the city.

The charter schools perform on par or better than traditional public schools in the area, with almost all of students either meeting or exceeding math and reading standards.

The charters are based on developmental neuroscience — the idea that a child’s developing brain responds to different sensory needs. The painted halls and floors are meant to stimulate and soothe, while teaching concepts and skills.

Photo by Moriah Costa

NEUROSCIENCE: The walls of the middle school floor at Monarch Academy in Glen Burnie, Md. show students how the brain works.

“It’s this whole idea of everything coming together to create a place that’s really safe and structured, but really an opportunity for you to push your thinking and not be afraid to ask questions,” said Maurine Larkin, principal of Monarch Academy Leroy Merritt.

It’s not just the hallways that spark children’s brains. Students at all the nonprofit schools are immersed in an academic program that encourages them to explore topics in-depth.

“We’re not interested so much in what they learn, but we’re interested in how they learn,” said Kelly Spanoghe, vice president of special education and student support services at the Children’s Guild, the nonprofit’s special education division.

She works at one of the organization’s nonpublic special education schools, where 56 autistic students are taught the skills they need to be successful in society. Some of  the students have been kicked out of multiple public schools and, for many of them, it’s the last stop before residential treatment.

Photo by Moriah Costa

HANDS ON LEARNING: A group of first graders plays during gym class at Monarch Academy in Glen Burnie, Md. Some of  the students have been kicked out of multiple public schools and, for many of them, it’s the last stop before residential treatment.

Spanoghe helped draft the D.C. school’s curriculum.  While the school will focus on helping special-needs children, it will be open to any K-8 student in D.C.

Andrew Ross, president and CEO of TranZed Alliance, said he decided to expand to D.C. because he saw a need for special education and rigorous academics.

“Since our organization has been involved in operating schools that serve kids with special education needs for 60 years, it seemed like a perfect match,” he said.

Ross works with a group of designers to build each school and “send the right message” to students. He wants all his schools centered around the kids, not the adults that serve them.

“The (education) system is not not set up to serve the kids, it’s set up to serve the people in the system,” he said. “We turned that upside down and focused on the kids and creating a culture that operates like that.”

Photo by Moriah Costa

FOCUSED LEARNING: The atmosphere at Monarch Academy has helped eighth grade student Ricky Strader stay focused in school.

At the Monarch Academy in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, this culture shift has helped eighth-grader Ricky Strader learn to focus.

“One thing that I’ve noticed is the reduction in bullying and the fact that this school seems more laid back and it’s more of a hands-on learning,” he said. “ Which, when you have (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) that’s a really good thing.”

Larkin, who is Strader’s principal, said she was surprised to hear him explain the school as “laid back.”

“That’s like beautiful to me because I know we’re not,” she said. “ We’re highly structured, but we do it in such a way that the kids don’t know we’re highly structured.”

It’s the type of structure Ross wants to bring to students in D.C. He doesn’t know what the school’s atmosphere will look like yet, but he does know one thing: It will reflect the community.

“We’re coming to D.C. with the understanding that each kid is an individual,” he said.

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Moriah formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.