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Posted: Nov 19, 2006 21:23


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Lake Wales, Florida
Melanie Anderson, Director of Admissions

Visit By: Stephen Migden, October 27, 2006

The Vanguard School is located in central Florida about an hour's drive south of Orlando. Vanguard is a specialized boarding and day school for middle and high school students with specific learning disabilities and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The school's emphasis is educating children with language-based learning disabilities that have at least low average intelligence without any significant behavioral or psychiatric problems; about 10-20% of the student body typically has a non-verbal learning disability.

Founded in 1966, Vanguard is celebrating 40 years of operation. The director of admissions, Melanie Anderson, has been with the school for about 13 years. The president, Dr. Cathy Wooley-Brown, is a more recent addition, having joined the school last August. She comes to Vanguard with what she describes as a 40-year background in education and educational administration. During my interview with her, Dr. Wooley-Brown reported that she had formerly been a special education teacher and then director of special education for the Polk County, Florida school system. She was also a professor at the University of South Florida where she specialized in charter schools, and just prior to joining Vanguard, she worked for a company that developed 22 charter schools in Florida. She impressed me as an extremely knowledgeable and capable individual.

The Vanguard School is divided into a Junior School for grades 5-8, and an Upper School for grades 9-12 with a postgraduate year. The Junior School uses a team teaching arrangement, and the Upper School is departmentalized. The acquisition of basic academic skills in reading, spelling, written expression and math is emphasized at all levels, as is the development of study and organizational skills. There is a required study skills class. The Upper School offers a college preparatory program or a career-oriented practical studies program. The college preparatory curriculum involves seven periods of class instruction per day, including English, social studies, and math and science, as well as foreign language. In fact, during her meeting with me, Dr. Wooley-Brown said the school believes in the importance of foreign language instruction for students with language based LD because, as she noted, recent research has indicated that such instruction reinforces reading and writing skills in English. Upper school electives include art, computer and home economics.

Especially for a school of its relatively small size, Vanguard offers a comparatively large intra-mural and interscholastic athletic program. Current teams, some of which are coed, include soccer, tennis, golf, track, weight lifting, and for girls only, volleyball and cheerleading. Although there is no swim team, Vanguard has a modern junior Olympic size pool, as well as a gymnasium and large, airy library/media center. On weekends, students attend outings to some of the cultural and recreational sites in central Florida, including those in the Orlando area.

Vanguard's educational approach can be described as eclectic in that no one philosophy or teaching technique dominates instruction. Among the techniques that can be utilized by Vanguard faculty are the Wilson reading program, the Lindamood-Bell program and Fast ForWord. The average class size is small with about 8-10 student, with individualized instruction emphasized. Each Upper School student has a mentor who takes major responsibility for monitoring student progress and meets with his or her group of students on a daily basis. Vanguard students do not routinely receive individual tutorials; instead they are arranged on an as-needed basis as pull-outs from the classroom. Such tutorials can involve reading, math or speech/language.

In addition to meeting with Dr. Wooley-Brown and Melanie Anderson, I also had the opportunity to meet with two students who took me on a tour of the campus. One of my tour guides was a young woman from the Southeast who had been at the school for five years. The other was a young man from the Caribbean who had been there for three years. Both were seniors who were very pleased with their experiences at Vanguard. The girl told me that after taking a gap year off, she was planning to go to college and then professional school in the healthcare field. The boy said he had applied to some colleges both out of the country and in Florida and planned to begin attending college next fall. They were eager to show off their school and when I asked what they might want to change about Vanguard, my female guide had difficulty thinking of anything, but then agreed with the young man who mentioned the taste and quality of the cafeteria food. (Coincidentally, before I had even met with the students, Dr. Wooley-Brown had told me that the first item in her renovation plan for the school involved a complete re-modeling of the cafeteria.)

All residential students at Vanguard progress through a 5-level system based on overall behavior and academic progress. Students earn greater privileges and freedom as they advance through the levels. To achieve the highest levels, students must not only demonstrate success in their behavior and academics but also engage in community service. Those at the two highest levels are eligible to have a car on campus and live in a coed honors dorm, which among other things, is equipped with private baths and a full kitchen. (My two guides lived in the honors dorm.) The other two, regular dormitory buildings are single-gender. No staff or faculty live on grounds, but one staff member stays in each building to provide evening and overnight coverage. Also, Dr. Wooley-Brown reported that she has a dorm room and stays there overnight at least once a week.

The Vanguard School has a current total enrollment of about 100 students, with the vast majority (90%) being boarders. The boy-girl ratio is about 70% to 30% respectively; in its geographic breakdown, the student body is evenly divided among those from Florida, those from other parts of the US, with international students coming mainly from the Caribbean. The school can accommodate up to about 140 students on its 75-acre campus that is sufficiently set back from the main highway to keep the noise and commotion minimal. In fact, Vanguard's campus is a very handsome collection of well maintained buildings in a welcoming and well landscaped setting. It is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and is a member of the National Association of Independent Schools. On my visit, I was told that the State of Florida does not license private schools such as Vanguard, but that the school is on the Florida Department of Education's list of accredited private schools.

About the Author:
Stephen Migden, PhD, is a psychologist and educational consultant who works with behavior disordered, emotionally disturbed and learning disabled students of all ages. His office is in Roslyn Heights, New York. Visit Dr. Migden's website at or call 516-625-0824 for more information

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