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VOL. 127 | NO. 220 | Friday, November 09, 2012

Finding the Way

Concord Academy marks 30 years of individualized student attention

By Bill Dries

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As David Strand was taking a group of eight students through the rigors of algebra in a computer lab at Concord Academy, there were some familiar indicators that usually can be found in any high school algebra class.

Concord Academy seventh graders Michael Triplett, center, and David Eaton perform a science experiment with a balloon to learn Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Concord Academy was founded for students with special needs to provide growth in all aspects of development including specialized academic instruction, psycho-social well-being and vocational guidance. 

Photo: Lance Murphey

Some of his 10th grade students were more enthusiastic than others – so much so that one blurted out the answer to a question.

“I wanted Odell to answer,” Strand said.

And the even tone was the first indication that this class is different for reasons other than its small size.

“I’ll take your questions in just a moment,” Strand said to another enthusiastic student. “How do you know whether that’s a correct answer,” Strand continued to the class in general.

“It would be obvious that the answer would be a positive,” a student said.

“I’m not sure what you mean by that,” Strand said evenly as he steered the conversation back to the certainty of the equations.

The eight students are striving to meet the standards that any student must meet under state education standards. But Concord is a school for students with learning disabilities and special needs in sixth through 12th grades.

The school that meets at Mullins United Methodist Church in East Memphis will mark its 30th anniversary next year. It was formed by a group of parents of special needs children with the goal of challenging and nurturing them as students.

“So many of our students are bright and they absolutely could go to work and complete a job but the part they are going to have trouble with is the social part of the job,” said Nan Miller, executive director of the school. “It’s not an option to withdraw and sit at the table by yourself. We have to engage you. And it’s our job even during break and lunch to get you to engage in a social activity. In the real world outside Concord’s walls you have to be able to engage socially.”

Students were preparing to take the ACT college entrance exam during a visit to the campus last month.

Diane Grover was taking six seniors through U.S. history and the Industrial Revolution of the early 1900s in particular. It took the students through John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.

Kate Croft, seated, with help from Cameron Jones, teaches classmates about the universe in an eighth grade science class at Concord Academy. Concord Academy was founded for students with special needs to provide growth in all aspects of development including specialized academic instruction, psycho-social well-being and vocational guidance.

Photo: Lance Murphey

“I really need to adhere heavily to the state standard curriculum, the common core curriculum,” Grover said later. “And make sure I bring in the type of questions that they are familiar with.”

Grover also teaches integrated math and personal finance among other subjects. A career educator, Grover said trust between students and teachers is essential.

“It’s highly individualized,” she said. “It is critical to their needs whether it be impulse control or ADD or perfectionism – and to understand where they are coming from, but hold them to a standard of what regular education would expect for working outside of this environment.”

In 30 years, Concord Academy has served more than 800 students. More than 91 percent of the school’s graduates have regular high school diplomas and gone on to earn college degrees or go to work directly from Concord.

Teachers use a team approach and multi-media presentations. The school has more computer and digital technology than it once did, said Regina Fausett, a middle school teacher who came to Concord eight years ago.

All but two classrooms have SMART boards for classroom instruction. Laptops, iPads and other devices from an agreement with Memphis City Schools are on a cart that moves from room to room.

The strategies change from student to student.

“We start where they are and move forward,” Fausett said. “It might take them longer and it is our job to find a way. … We can revisit it. We can come back to it. We work at their pace.”

“Sometimes they do eight preparations for the same class,” said Becky Dean who has been director of programs at Concord since June. She came to the school from a career as an educator in Mississippi.

“Some of the students are fine academically but not behavior wise. Sometimes it keeps them from showing their true potential. Some of the students do not have it academically and they are struggling with it.”

Dean and Miller want to see the school expand to reach more than the 66 children currently enrolled.

Miller is working on more scholarships to cover costs and the tuition of more than $10,000 a year as well as more partnerships with businesses through a growing list of fundraisers.

“We want to just really have the community realize that our students have a lot of really good abilities,” Miller said. “Even though they have disabilities, they can be productive citizens and they can be good employees in the workforce.”

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