Learning and Succeeding "Differently"

Published November 4, 2013

Having a child who struggles in school torments parents – whether it’s because of attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, an inability to comprehend “whole word” approaches in learning to read, or just a need to “learn differently” from peers. The experience is even harder on the child.

Some just struggle along, with limited help from teachers, school administrators and special programs. Others get little or no help, lag further behind, fall through the cracks, or just give up or drop out of school. For a lucky few, there may be a special place like the Oakwood School in Annandale, Virginia.

“These kids aren’t dumb or lazy, or simply don’t want to be in school,” says Oakwood Principal Robert McIntyre. “They’re bright and are really trying their level best. But they are struggling with learning or attention disabilities” – meaning not all the neurotransmitters in their brains work the same way as in most children. The result is often a significant gap between the child’s solid intelligence, and what he or she is actually able to achieve.

In 1970 Bob was a school principal working with “underachieving” students. His wife Mary was an early childhood school director trying to help obviously bright pre-schoolers who couldn’t focus on or master pre-academic skills. They and a colleague were examining “learning disabilities,” a concept that was unfamiliar to most teachers and viewed with skepticism by others. The three educators wanted to employ non-traditional learning styles in a nurturing but stimulating learning environment for bright children. 

When they could find no public or private school to take up this challenge, they concluded that this was their spiritual calling and mission. Their clear vision and strong personal faith convinced them that it could be done and stimulated the strategic planning and hard work that culminated in their new educational concept becoming reality in 1971. Oakwood was launched in donated space in a local church, with one child and four staffers who had a combined 75+ years of experience in education. The school grew rapidly and, ten years later, its board of directors purchased Oakwood’s own building. 

Fully licensed, accredited and recognized for its pace-setting, research-based work on dyslexia and other learning disabilities, Oakwood serves families from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Some families have driven as far as 50 to 70 miles each way every school day, to give their kids a better chance in a school that was “right for them.”

“With faith and action, potential becomes reality” is Oakwood’s motto, and respect for different personalities, customs, cultures and learning styles is a dominant theme. Its dedicated teachers work closely with each child, to instill true self-esteem, based on success in overcoming obstacles and reaching milestones in reading, math, key-boarding, note taking, time management, athletics, dealing with social and emotional issues that many students carry to Oakwood from their previous schools, and of course understanding the subject matter in their courses. On-going communication and involvement among parents, students and staff play a major role in helping to create an environment that nurtures without condescension, but also demands significant effort.

Oakwood students are bright kids who have learning challenges, especially at early ages and grades, but can be helped to achieve their often enormous maximum potential. Early, even small accomplishments steadily grow into life-transforming changes that enable them to realize incredible possibilities. The approaches used in its grade and middle school classes are often unorthodox, but they prepare the students for high school, college and the vocation of life.

Students learn reading through phonics. They sometimes study human physiology and learning styles by wearing their “brain caps” that show which parts of the brain do what. An “Out of this World” program taught students about outer space through classroom work, Q&A sessions with an astronaut and other experts, and a field trip to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. A government class covered Supreme Court history, the court’s role in the U.S. checks and balances system, and famous court cases, and culminated in a trip to the Supreme Court and a meeting with Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Building on these successes, Oakwood has conducted professional development for schools in Central Asia and the Middle East, teaching their educators how to work with alternative learning styles, and help students launch academic, business and other careers.

Parents praise the ways “the Oakwood Experience” has shaped their children’s lives. “Our little guy uses his growing vocabulary to let us get inside his heart and his head, to feel the excitement, the confidence, the hope he’s feeling now, in contrast to his painful memories of just a few months ago,” said one. “My son told me that at his previous school he felt like there was a wall in his brain and nothing could get past it,” another parent said. “Since he’s been at Oakwood, he’s felt like someone blew up the wall and now he can learn and understand things. He feels smart and brims with self confidence and happiness!” 

“What an incredible difference you made in Elizabeth’s life,” a grandmother wrote. “In two years of high school, she has maintained a 3.4 GPA, while taking Honors, IB and AP courses and being a three-sport athlete.” Above all, Oakwood enables its graduates to succeed in college, business and life.

Ari D graduated with honors from Indiana U, with degrees in business management, entrepreneurship and business IT; he is now a senior project manager for a Chicago-based marketing company. Arielle K completed her undergraduate program at Virginia Tech with a 3.9 cumulative GPA and is working on a dual master’s in public administration and social work.

Bill Y received his BA in psychology from William and Mary, while interning at the National Institutes of Health, studying emotional responses of cancer and heart attack patients; he expects to begin his PhD in clinical psychology next fall. Joanna B received a degree in sociology and now is a social worker, serving children and families in Florida. John C was an honors student in high school, received his BA, became a senior consultant with Deloitte, and plans to pursue his master’s in business.

Katie P came to Oakwood dealing with dyslexia and unable to read or write; she graduated with honors from college and is now an actress with a passion for reading and learning. Mark N served in the Marine Corps, got a BS in business administration, works for a medical sales company and is the proud father of three children. Matt P received his BS in electrical and computer engineering from Colorado State University and is now working on his master’s at CSU. Rick T served a tour in Afghanistan with the US Army and now is stationed in Texas, where he has adopted three boys whose mother was killed in a car accident and whose father abandoned them and is serving a long sentence in prison.

Shoshana K finished her undergraduate at Emory and graduate program at Columbia with straight A’s and is now a middle school civics teacher. Meghan H went from being self-described “basket case” when she transferred to Oakwood in the fifth grade, to completing an honors program at Oxford University in England and graduating from George Mason University.

The Oakwood School could serve as a model for schools and special learning programs all over the United States and world. The proven methods it employs, skill sets it teaches and confidence it instills have launched hundreds of children on high school, college, professional and family achievements that likely would have been far beyond their reach, had this school not featured in their early development.  

Oakwood receives no funding from local school districts or the federal government. Its primary sources are student tuition fees and grants from companies and family foundations. Its greatest need is scholarship money, to enable more children from poor and middle class families to benefit from its programs.

Mighty trees truly grow from little acorns nurtured early in life. Helping Oakwood replicate its programs and methods could make a huge difference in the lives of many students – and in the companies and communities they will serve because of what this very special school enabled them to achieve.