• January 2012

When Your Child Has Learning Differences, There's the Summit School

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Author, The Parent Diaries

Since I began studying for my master’s degree in educational leadership from GWU in 1991, I have had a passion for understanding how kids learn. In part, I was inspired to learn more because I wanted to be prepared to guide the children I hoped one day to have.

But I also wanted to learn what made business leaders tick—for surely, it had something to do with how they were educated as children. Although I spent more than a decade doing educational software reviews for The Washington Post, it wasn’t until after my daughter Anna was born in 1995, and my son Dylan in 1999, that I really clued in to how children learn—each one so differently.

As I watched my own children pass through each grade of the public schools, I came to challenge my own preconceived notions of how children learn. I started a blog, The Parent Diaries: How to help your child succeed in school—without going insane.

In it, I have profiled dozens of educators, parents, kids, and authors who are educational leaders, in an attempt to find guides to help me and my readers parent well. After all, who doesn’t need help when it comes to learning how to be a good parent?

Finding the Summit

And so, it was a pleasure this fall to meet Dr. Jane Snider, founder of The Summit School, in Annapolis, MD.

Founded in 1989, her not-for-profit school is for bright students with dyslexia and other learning differences. Summit enrolls approximately 100 students in grades 1-8, with an overall student/staff ratio of 4:1.

“Our students are often diagnosed with learning disabilities by specialists in the field,” Snider explains. “At Summit, our preference is to view those disabilities as differences, because we emphasize the gifts each student brings and help them reach their potential.”

The Summit School’s 15-acre campus is located in Edgewater, MD, just eight miles south of Annapolis, MD. Students come from Anne Arundel and nine surrounding counties and the District of Columbia, but families have relocated from as far as Hong Kong for this successful, specialized school.

“Summit is not an ordinary school—it is an extraordinary school,” Snider insists, and after more than 20 years in operation, the school has helped transition more than 400 students to the area’s finest high schools, and later, to some of the best colleges and universities in the country. Financial aid is offered to approximately 25 percent to 30 percent of families each year, based on need.

“At Summit, we transform lives,” says Snider. “Our goal is to remediate skills and enable students to maximize their talents and abilities. Our teacher training program is unique and extensive; week to week it hones every professional’s talents. Minimal student progress is unacceptable. We are devoted to developing every student to reach potential for success in high school, college, and life.”

Snider says that she came up with idea to found The Summit School in 1988, when she had a private practice as a learning disabilities specialist in Annapolis.

“I saw hundreds and hundreds of students during an eight-year period, and the presenting issue was often the same,” she shares. “The parents would tell me, ‘My child is struggling, I know he (she) is smart, but he is frustrated, homework is a nightmare, he has a tutor, and he still feels dumb.’

“Parents often asked me to open a school since I had a staff of trained tutors, but I did not think about it seriously until the headmaster of a school for students with dyslexia called and asked me to take on the task,” she said. “His school had a lengthy waiting list, and he could not take my referrals. That meant there would be students who would not get the program they needed since there were few options in the metropolitan area. And so the charge became a reality. The beautiful thing was that every parent I talked with wanted to help; everyone knew a school was needed for students with dyslexia and similar learning differences.”

Snider insists that the wonderful part about taking this on was that she could determine what was important, what values she should incorporate, and how to create a climate where parents, teachers, and students felt trusted.

“I chose the name Summit as a metaphor for each child reaching his peak,” she says, realizing that no one never accomplishes this type of venture alone. “I had colleagues, parents, business men and women, and friends who helped—from the smallest to the most important of tasks. There was a need; we were going to meet that need. We had hurdles, but we were determined to succeed.”

And succeed the students at The Summit School have.

Just last month, Snider received a letter from a former male student who wrote:

“I just graduated a semester early from college last week. As a major in business administration, I obtained a GPA of 3.7, and was able to graduate near the top of my class, and recently received a job offer from Northrop Grumman as a business analyst with their Electronic Systems sector starting January 30, 2012.

“I learned that more than 12,000 people applied for this job, and only 15 were selected. It is an executive program, so the company will also pay for me to obtain my MBA from the University of Maryland.

“I feel that I owe my success to my eight years of education at The Summit School. I just wanted to write you this note thanking you.”

The student noted, too, that one of his friends from The Summit School was accepted to Virginia Military Institute.

“He was accepted into every college he applied to, including Florida Institute of Technology, The Citadel, Emery Riddle, and the University of West Virginia. We both credit your school with our success.”

The Bottom Line

“When our parents come to Summit, they know in their hearts that their children can succeed, but their question is, ‘Will anyone else see my child’s potential?’” explains Dr. Joan Mele-McCarthy, the Summit’s Head of School, who refers to “The Lion in the Marble” tale.

“There is an old tale of a master sculptor who worked tirelessly for many weeks, sunrise to sunset, with hammer and chisel on a large block of marble,” Mele-McCarthy shares. “One day a child watched him and saw that although the sculptor worked with intensity for many hours, there was nothing more than dust and large and small bits of stone falling from the block of marble. He could not imagine what was happening, but when he returned to the sculptor’s studio several weeks later, to his amazement there stood a great lion in exquisite detail, causing the child to ask the artist, ‘How did you know there was a lion in the marble?’ The sculptor replied, ‘I knew there was a lion in the marble because I saw him in my own heart. And the secret is that the lion in my heart recognized the lion in the marble.‘”

The trouble, Mele-McCarthy knows, is that too many students have not found academic success in school, and they ask themselves, “Who can help find ‘the lion in the marble’ in them?”

“The tale of the sculptor and child is a wonderfully apt analogy for what we do at Summit, for what is true in the art of sculpting is also true in the art of education. Each requires a vision to detect the as-yet unrevealed, to see the potential, and to possess the discipline to work with confidence and endurance day after day to chip away in order to release the masterpiece lying within.”

As Head of School, Mele-McCarthy says she cheers and marvels as the artistry unfolds year after year with the success of Summit students, whose potential might not be tapped in more traditional educational settings because of their learning differences.

“We succeed because we combine the art and science of education with supportive teachers who recognize ‘the lion in the marble.’ They are committed, multi-talented, and highly trained in strategies that are scientifically proven to work with children,” Mele-McCarthy concludes. “At the very heart of our teaching and our work is the regard for the integrity of our children, while always keeping the vision of the masterpiece, the successful learner, that lies within each student.”

About Dr. Jane Snider

Dr. Jane Snider received her BA, MA, and, in 1978, her EdD in special education, from The George Washington University, and she began her career as a special education classroom teacher. Since then, she has become a pioneer in the field of educating children with certain learning disabilities.

After personally observing and working with thousands of children who were not performing in their various school environments, she discovered that many students have differing learning patterns. Frustrated and lacking self-esteem, these children, often labeled as learning disabled, were crying out for help.

They had trouble reading, writing, or breaking big tasks into smaller steps. Yet Dr. Snider knew they could learn with a different learning environment and teaching strategy. In her view, the children were not learning disabled; they merely learned differently.

Following classroom teaching, Dr. Snider became an assistant professor of special education at The George Washington University. After three years, she opened a diagnostic and tutorial center in Annapolis, serving hundreds of children from public, private, and religious schools. She had a staff of tutors and consulted with boarding schools throughout the East Coast that serve students with learning challenges. The center served children and families from 1982 to 1989.

When Dr. Snider realized that few area schools could cater to dyslexic children, she envisioned creating a school environment in which children would be educated according to their individual learning styles and needs. Thus was born The Summit School, grades 1 through 8, with an academic program tailored to each child’s specific learning needs.

About Dr. Joan Mele-McCarthy

Dr. Mele-McCarthy brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to Summit. She earned her Bachelor of Arts, Master of Science, and Doctor of Arts degrees in Speech-Language Pathology from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. She has worked in a variety of settings throughout her many years of service to children and families and has accrued many areas of expertise and experience that serve our students, our families, and our school well.

Her clinical competency and supervision experience includes serving as a university professor and clinical supervisor at several universities. She understands the educational needs of children and supervises and teaches staff to ensure they provide for those needs.

She has extensive knowledge of research-based theoretical concepts and has developed course content at the university level based on the research. She has trained teachers across the country, has presented at numerous professional conferences at the national and local levels, has contributed to peer-reviewed publications, and has developed national research agendas for English language learners and children with learning disabilities.

In addition, Dr. Mele-McCarthy has owned and directed a thriving private practice for 16 years—Communication & Learning Therapies, Inc. Having served children and families in the private sector, she notes, “I understand the child-family-school connection and the accountability Summit has to all of its families.”

Just prior to taking this position, Dr. Mele-McCarthy served as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the US Department of Education, Washington, DC, an appointed position in the Bush administration. She has a national perspective on general education and special education as a result of her policy work on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). Her philosophy of education holds as a priority, high expectations for all children.

Dr. Mele-McCarthy served on the Board of Trustees for the International Dyslexia Association as well as the Government Relations and Public Policy Board within the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Be on the lookout for future articles in our Education column by Snider and Mele-McCarthy in upcoming issues of Be Inkadescent magazine.

For more information, visit www.thesummitschool.org.

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