Visit Reports
Visit Reports

Sep 23, 2010, 10:11

Glen Arbor, Michigan
Matt Ralston

Visit by Judith E. Bessette, Ed D July 21 and 22, 2010

For professionals who work with high school students with ADHD, executive functioning issues and/or language-based learning issues, if you've never visited the Leelanau School on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, near Traverse City, do yourself a favor and go visit. If you haven't visited recently -- since Matt Ralston became the Head of School last year -- you should visit again!

Ralston came to Leelanau from the Hill School near Philadelphia, PA. Having been at Hill for seventeen years, serving in a variety of academic and administrative positions, he was looking for a new challenge and felt drawn to work with students whose learning styles were different. Leelanau began changing its focus from more traditional students about five years ago to students with learning differences. With a new track to run on, Ralston has begun to fine-tune the program. He brings both a critical eye and understanding of what a truly fine boarding school should be to the campus.

The physical plant, set amid a north woods forest (and yes, a river does run through it) has had a recent facelift. The refurbished dorms are beautiful... with 2 students to a room, generous closet space and study space. The common areas are comfortable -- and equipped with Franklin stoves in keeping with the classic country feel the campus engenders. The remodeling embraced a green approach -- a commitment that reflects the location itself.

I was fortunate to be able to visit while summer school was still in session -- a four-week term during which kids can complete two classes -- and while Edward (Ned) Hallowell, MD was there, conducting the fourth annual ADHD Summer Enrichment Camp for families.

I spent a couple of hours listening to Hallowell. He started that morning by reading a commencement address he had given at Eagle Hill School in MA revealing to the graduates that they were not "disabled" (either as learners or otherwise).,.but rather members of a secret society of "magnificent minds"...individuals with special gifts and that merely need to be "unwrapped" in a different way.

For most of the parents in the room at Leelanau-- there were about 32 there -- it seemed this was the first time someone talked to them about their kids'being extraordinary versus handicapped by having a different learning style. At lunch, I spent some time talking with Hallowell. He shared with me his belief that from the Head to the kitchen staffs at Leelanau"these people get these kids in an amazing way."

As I had the opportunity to meet faculty, I began to understand why Hallowell feels this way. I spent time with Rob Himburg who is the Director of Education during the school year and Hallowell's partner in the Summer Enrichment Camp. (Hallowell works primarily with the adults while Himburg works with the kids.) I was impressed with his passion for these kids, his vision for improving the academic program (starting this fall) and watching him work with real, live whose learning styles were truly all over the map!

These kids (5th grade to 9th...the older kids were in a different group) had only been together for two days but seemed to have been together much longer. With some students listening to soft background music, others manipulating play-doh and still others doodling, Rob led a discussion about how to use their various learning styles to improve their organization, time management and study skills. And the kids stayed engaged and contributed great ideas to what would be an on-going discussion for the rest of the week.

Back in his office, Rob and I talked about what strength-based means at Leelanau. It's easy to see how a strength-based approach is right in line with Hallowell's thinking about these kids being extraordinary versus disabled...but it's not so easy to understand how this approach also encompasses remediation when that is necessary. That's when I learned about the Learning Resource Center or LRC as everyone calls it at Leelanau.

The LRC helps students learn about their learning styles, their areas of strength and their areas of weakness. It is in understanding their areas of weakness that students are offered remediation or work that allows them to shore up those weaknesses. The school has added a new faculty member this fall who is fully trained and experienced in the Orton-Gillingham approach to language based learning issues.

While I was in line for lunch (good food -- much of it organic and local -- the staff is great and connected to the kids) I had the opportunity to speak to a couple of regular summer school students. Both were sophomores -- one making up a class from his freshman year and another coming in this fall who wanted to get familiar with the campus and meet a few students. They gave their teachers high marks and talked about the friendly, family-like atmosphere of the school.

Students are required to take seven courses each semester. These courses include the core academic areas -- English, Mathematics, Science, and History as well as some electives. The Fine Arts Program, impressive for a small school, includes drama, photography, animation, studio art and music. All the students participate in an afternoon physical activity four days each week. Like other small boarding schools, Leelanau offers a variety of competitive sports -- baseball, basketball, golf and tennis. In keeping with the out-of-doors setting at Leelanau, the school also offers Footsteps, a program that offers rock-climbing, hiking, mountain-biking, kayaking, canoeing, skiing and snowboarding. Working with Northern Pines Farm in nearby Maple City, Leelanau is able to offer an outstanding equestrian program. From simple "schooling shows" to "rated" shows, the program has something to offer to the novice as well as the experienced rider.

I enjoyed learning about the way the school embraces the notion of exploration for every student at Leelanau -- using the beautiful setting of the Leelanau Peninsula surrounded by Lake Michigan. Every September, all students and faculty take a five-day trip to learn about their surroundings, about their fellow students, and, of course, about themselves. The trips vary a bit from year-to-year, but typical examples are:

Freshmen camp at Leelanau State Park, go salmon fishing and learn about cherry-growing. They have time to consider what they're good at, how they work with others, and what they have to contribute.

Sophomores build on the knowledge they've gained while exploring Wilderness State Park, a geologically "new" and fascinating area near the Straits of Mackinac. Students focus on learning how to communicate more successfully, make productive decisions, and resolve conflict.

Juniors, canoe on the Manistee River, rich in natural and cultural history, pushing past personal boundaries and pulling together to overcome obstacles.

After three years of anticipation, seniors set off on a 20-mile journey in voyageur canoes to Lake Huron's Les Cheneaux Islands. Using the skills and knowledge they've gained at Leelanau to prepare for the challenge, from constructing their own paddles to planning their meals, they rely on their trust in each other and in themselves.

For a student with learning issues who also has significant emotional or behavior issues, a more therapeutic school setting would be a better starting point. However, Leelanau may very well be a good step-down for the learning-challenged student who has gotten those issues under control. The school has a health center, staffed by RNs from 7 AM to 11PM each day...and on call 24/7. The school also has a relationship with a child psychiatrist who comes to the school regularly and can help with med management. Local psychologists and therapists are available for students who need counseling support.

So...if you're working with a student with a learning difference who wants a boarding experience in an amazing setting, at a school that has a genuine feeling of family...take a look at Leelanau.

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