Arrowsmith program homework.
EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WZZM) - A very different kind of education program is coming to West Michigan for children with a variety of learning disabilities.
Right now, the closest school using the Arrowsmith method is in McBain, Michigan, near Cadillac. But this fall, St. Stephen Catholic School in East Grand Rapids plans to start the program.
Two families are using the program, and helped bring it here. These families are so confident in the Arrowsmith program; they are willing to do what many parents would consider unthinkable: send their 11 year old daughters away from home for school.
When you ask Maddie Weis what her favorite subjects in school are, she says, "Gym and recess." It's a typical answer for an 11 year old. But take one look at Maddie's homework, and you know she goes to a unique school.
Jay T. and Christine Weis knew early on Maddie had a learning disability. They say they started noticing she was developing differently than their older daughter when Maddie was still a toddler.
Christine Weis says, "Basically she has trouble organizing her thoughts. She has trouble putting some of her thoughts into words."
Weis says Maddie has an auditory processing learning disability.
Maddie and her friend Luci Spangler attend the Arrowsmith program.
Luci's mother Ann Spangler says, "For Luci, she has learned disabilities with what is called working memory. She would for instance learn her math facts. Then she would forget them. She would learn them again. And she would forget them. So she would have to work a lot harder. And she does work very hard. She's a very hard worker. It felt like, are we really getting anywhere?"
After a great deal of research, Jay T. and Christine Weis and Ann Spangler decided to send their daughters to the Arrowsmith program at Northern Michigan Christian School in McBain. Northern Michigan just opened one classroom of the Arrowsmith program this school year. It's the first program in the Midwestern United States. The program was founded and is based in Canada.
Spangler recalls, "When I first heard about McBain, I thought no way, I'm not letting my Luci go up to McBain, Michigan. And then it occurred to me that maybe that knee jerk response wasn't the smartest response. And that I should do a little bit more investigating."
The girls spend the week living with host families, and the weekends at home.
After less than a year, Arrowsmith has made a difference for the girls.
Christine Weis says of her daughter,"Actually, for the first time ever in her school life, she's able to come home and do her own homework."
Even Maddie can tell the difference.
She says she is glad she goes to the new school "because I knew it would change my brain and everything... When I do things it's much easier."
The girls' success convinced the principal of St. Stephen Catholic School in East Grand Rapids to adopt the program.
Principal Cindy Thomas says, "It is different. There is no curriculum per se that's taught. It's basically retraining the brain. And trying to reconnect and trying to redirect the brain waves if you will."
Instead of compensating for a disability by working around it, Arrowsmith takes on the problem part of the brain.
Thomas says, "They take it head on. So, they take a look at where their learning disability is and their exercises that they will do in this program will focus in on that, their weaker areas, instead of putting that aside. That's actually what they're trying to target and trying to strengthen."
Ann Spangler adds, "The brain actually can change. And that with the same kind of stimulation and exercise it can actually grow new neural pathways and synaptic connections."
These are connections Maddie Weis recognized and wrote home about. Her mother reads Maddie's letter quoting, "Oh Mom and Dad I'm so glad you guys sent me up here. Cause it really helps me. Love, Maddie."
Their parents say the girls' self-confidence has increased tremendously in just a few months.
The Arrowsmith program has existed in Canada for 30 years, but there aren't many Arrowsmith schools in the United States.
The program at St. Stephen will open in the fall with a class of about ten children. St. Stephen is holding an information session Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 6:30 pm. The school is located at 745 Rosewood SE in East Grand Rapids. You can call the school office at (616) 243-8998 for more information.
The Arrowsmith program at St. Stephen will cost about $9,000 in tuition. That's far more than St. Stephen's traditional education tuition of about $3,500. But Principal Thomas says there are additional costs associated with teacher training, equipment, and other costs.
The Weis family admits the program is expensive, but they point out doing nothing is far more expensive in the long run.
The Arrowsmith program is very different than a traditional education program. The students spend most of their day doing special brain exercises. We saw them doing homework that involved tracing unusual letter like shapes on paper. The girls did the work with their left eye covered with a patch. That puts the focus on the right eye, and the left section of the brain.
Most Arrowsmith students do not spend a lot of time in traditional classes such as English, social studies or science. But, as Christine Weis points out, her daughter sat through traditional classes before, and did not retain anything she heard.
Arrowsmith is designed for children to attend for three or four years. By the end of that time, they will hopefully be ready to return to a traditional classroom and learn without assistance or modifications.
Jay T. Weis compared Arrowsmith to riding a bike with a slightly flat tire. He says traditional special education programs try to compensate for the flat tire by strengthening the other parts of the bike to help make up the difference. But, Weis says Arrowsmith tries to pump air back into the tire, or tries to repair the malfunctioning portion of the brain.
Arrowsmith deals with 19 different kinds of learning disabilities, ranging from dyslexia to memory issues to attention deficit disorder.