Unique school helps unlock minds of dyslexic children

Toby van Rensburg says words are not so daunting now he is a student at Summit Point School.
CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Toby van Rensburg says words are not so daunting now he is a student at Summit Point School.

Toby van Rensburg felt dreadful when he was criticised by a previous teacher because he couldn't write.

The 11-year-old has dysgraphia - difficulty with writing; auditory processing disorder - caused when the ears and brain do not fully coordinate; dyscalculia - a mathematical learning difficulty and "traces" of dyslexia - a common reading difficulty.

It's quite a list but Toby confidently rattles them off, no longer struggling with his differences.

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Since term four last year, Toby has been a pupil at Summit Point School, on the North Shore, a private school which gives specialised teaching to Auckland pupils who struggle with learning disorders.

READ MORE:
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Most of the young charges are known as twice exceptional - they have learning difficulties such as dyslexia, sometimes with behavioural problems too, but are also gifted in other areas like music or art.

Rebecca Elias, the director of Summit Point School, is passionate about teaching children with dyslexia in a way they ...
DENISE PIPER/FAIRFAX NZ

Rebecca Elias, the director of Summit Point School, is passionate about teaching children with dyslexia in a way they can understand.

Toby says he had difficulties settling in at his previous schools, which meant he went to lots of different ones before starting at Summit Point.

"I came here and everything was easy and everyone was a lot nicer," he explains.

As well as more guided help with his reading, writing and maths, Toby also enjoys being in a class of like-minded peers.

Isabel Robinson was previously in a classroom with 90 students: she finds it much easier to concentrate and get ...
CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Isabel Robinson was previously in a classroom with 90 students: she finds it much easier to concentrate and get one-on-one tuition at Summit Point school.

"If I was behind they wouldn't be mean to me. They would say, 'take your time, we're all like this'."

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Summit Point School offers specialised teaching for primary school-aged children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties.

Summit Point is the brainchild of director Rebecca Elias. She started offering one and two-day tuition in 2013 through The Summit Academy but was pushed to open a full-time school by parents, who found their dyslexic children had a great need for help, both academically and emotionally.

Summit Point School has a number of tools to aid learning, such as whiteboard desks.
CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Summit Point School has a number of tools to aid learning, such as whiteboard desks.

Elias says children as young as six are struggling in mainstream schools - screaming and crying because they don't want to go to school - because all their peers are succeeding faster than them. 

"Anxiety and stomach aches and headaches are really common. That manifests into hearing voices and suicidal thoughts.

"We recognise it in these teeny, tiny kids that these kids are really struggling," she says.

Holly Schurink, 12, is one of the new students at Summit Point.
CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Holly Schurink, 12, is one of the new students at Summit Point.

This year is the first time Summit Point has operated full-time for its full roll of 40 students, running in a corner of St Joseph's Catholic School in Takapuna, which leases a block of its unused classrooms.

It has provisional registration from the Ministry of Education but no funding this year, under the rules for setting up a private school.

The school will be assessed by the Education Review Office this year and, if deemed suitable for full registration, it will receive funding of around $1000 per student.

While Summit Point is a registered charity, it currently runs on tuition fees. Families who are unable to afford the fees are offered scholarships through the Friedlander Foundation - a philanthropic organisation which aims to reduce inequalities. 

Elias is clear on the need for the school, rather than all pupils going through mainstream education: "One size doesn't fit all."

The need was recently highlighted by an investigation into support for students with dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism spectrum disorders by the Education and Science Committee.

After the 15-month inquiry, the committee made 46 recommendations for improvement, covering everything from screening to teacher training.

School principals also agree there is a lack of support for students with high learning needs.

In the survey by the New Zealand Principals' Federation in November 2016, just 32 per cent of the 489 principals who responded agreed their school had the capacity to include all students with moderate to severe learning needs.

Sixty-three percent also said teachers were not well supported by Ministry Special Education Services in catering for high learning needs.

SET UP FOR DYSLEXIC STUDENTS' LEARNING PROFILE

Elias says Summit Point School's tuition is specifically set up for the learning profile of a dyslexic student.

The children are taught with a multi-sensory approach - using visuals, sound, movement and touch.

The curriculum is based on the international Orton-Gillingham approach, a way of teaching backed by 90 years of research and data, Elias says.

Words are broken down into phonetics and syllables, helping pupils decode words when they come across ones they don't know. Pupils are also taught the history and origin of words.

"It's not about learning to read or learning to spell, it's about learning to think about language," she says.

While technology plays a big part in the classrooms at Summit Point, pupils are still encouraged to put pencil to paper and learn how to write.

"Learning to touch-type is great but you're not empowering them to learn how to write or spell," Elias explains.

For Matt Hutcheson, the different way of teaching has made a significant difference to his 11-year-old daughter, Grace.

Grace has dyslexia as well as coordination disorder dyspraxia and attention deficit disorder. She attends Summit Point two days a week.

Hutcheson says teaching Grace in a way that suits how she's "wired" has made a phenomenal difference.

"Going into the Summit environment gives her a chance to see how it all fits together. Before she had no way of ever comprehending it," he says.

"I don't want to talk ill of mainstream schooling but it's engineered to teach students who think in a mainstream way."

Hutcheson says dyslexia is not an affliction but a different way of seeing the world. Many famous people had dyslexia, from Albert Einstein to Steven Spielberg.

The differences in Grace include greater confidence and a desire to read for leisure, Hutcheson says. Her writing skills have also flourished.

"I'm convinced, and so are all the other educational professionals and educational psychologists involved with Grace, that Summit has been instrumental in her significant improvements in intelligence and also self-esteem."

Elias says she became motivated to learn more about education after her own son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

A trained secondary school teacher in visual arts and technology, she found she couldn't comprehend her son's educational psychology report.

Elias was also inspired by her two older nephews, who both had dyslexia and behavioural problems: "They had a really horrible experience at school and left early."

She did post-graduate studies in linguistics and curriculum, completing her Masters of Professional Education with a focus on dyslexia.

Elias' journey was helped with a scholarship from the Friedlander Foundation, which included funding a visit to The Gow School, a boarding school for dyslexic boys in New York.

Her experience has led to the development of a unique curriculum for Summit Point.

While a student's individual achievement is measured, the school does not use National Standards, Elias says.

"If you're measuring non-dyslexic kids against dyslexic ones, it's like a one-legged race.

"It's like expecting a kid in a wheelchair to get up a flight of stairs."

'LUCKY TO BE THERE'

Claudia Farry believes her 10-year-old son Luca Brodie is lucky to be a student at Summit Point.

Luca is dyslexic and, despite being very bright, he was struggling to demonstrate and express his knowledge, Farry says.

"It was impacting very negatively on his view of his academic ability and his general sense of self," she says.

Luca was getting special tuition a couple of hours a week but Summit Point School has been a "better fit for him", Farry says.

Moving to Summit Point full-time was a difficult choice for Luca, who lives in Titirangi and had a circle of friends and sense of place in his local school, she says.

"He didn't hesitate for a second. He said 'I know it's going to be hard but it's better for my learning,' which is very profound for a nine-year-old."

Now, Luca is confident and outgoing, saying he thinks Summit Point School is "just awesome".

"We get to do a whole bunch of cool things, like projects and art," he says.

But the school is about a whole lot more than fun projects.

Luca proudly says his reading has improved so much he read a whole book - one of the Captain Underpants series - in just one day.

Summit Point School is about setting pupils up for life, Elias says.

"I believe that this is changing their life. It's changing their future."

When 100 students applied for the school's 40 places this year, Elias prioritised those at the very beginning and end of their primary schooling, so the biggest impact could be made.

"The demand is huge and we've only got four classrooms," she says.

"New Zealand families send their kids to international boarding schools because there's nothing here. We're changing that."

Pupils attend from all over greater Auckland, with car pooling and taxis helping them to get to and from the school.

Elias' goal is for her students to not need extra help - such as reader/writers - when they go into high school.

There have been plenty of successes so far. "We've got kids who are dyslexic reading five to six years above their age level."

 

 - Sunday Star Times

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