SEAS, a Tiny but Mighty School
Every nomadic family knows that one of the hardest things about moving every few years is finding the right school for the kids. So many questions go with this search, so much stress and worry. Will they be academically challenged? Will they fit in? Will the staff nurture them emotionally? Will they be safe? Will they be expected to stuff themselves into a box or will they be allowed to find their own path? It weighs on a momma.
We have three children, each with their own special gifts and qualities, all operate above grade level in many subjects, one operates well above grade level in all subjects, and they have vibrant personalities that need to be allowed to fly free. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not trouble makers, each of them has always been the kids that teachers want in their classroom–they’re leaders, thoughtful and respectful to their peers and their teachers. But they all have large personalities and one of my priorities is to find a school where they will not be expected to minimize themselves in order to fit in.
Our first school here was very mixed for us. Our daughter was badly bullied (which I blogged about here) by a girl in our neighborhood who also went to the same school as our kids. Long story short, months of trying to get the behavior dealt with on the bus and in school was fruitless and we knew our only option was to find a different school. I was having coffee with a friend, talking to her about the bullying, and she suggested that I check out the tiny school her kids went to, so one morning our daughter and I paid SEAS a visit, after five minutes I said to myself “this is it, this is the school for her.” Our daughter, who had been so emotionally bruised and battered, had transformed from an incredibly extroverted, vibrant, joyful child into a shy child, mistrustful of strangers. I was pleasantly surprised when she said she wanted to spend the day at the school, when I picked her up that afternoon she bounded up to me and said “Momma! I made 20 friends today!” This was the girl who, only the week before, I’d seen wandering the perimeter of the playground of her (now) old school, head down, earphones in–that was a sight that tore at my heart because it just was not who she was. Two days after starting at SEAS, her new school, she was back to hula hooping around the house and chattering non-stop. Academically she’d struggled, for the first time ever, at the first school, her grades were plummeting. She was so lost in the emotional turmoil of the bullying that she couldn’t soar academically. At SEAS she took off like a shot, making such rapid improvement that it was almost shocking to her teachers. We’d gotten our daughter back, SEAS gave us our daughter back. As a mother I have found very few things more painful than watching one of my children suffer, SEAS put an end to that suffering and showed Aisleen that she could trust again, that she was safe again, that she didn’t have to shrink into the background anymore, she could soar and be her colorful, imaginative, dynamic self. I really will never be able to put into words how grateful I am for such an profound gift, the gift of helping to bring our child back to herself.
Our youngest did well academically (though he was operating at a higher level than the other kids in his class and I was frustrated by what I saw as him having to sit in a box that he’d outgrown), fit into his classroom, had lots of friends, but I began to suspect that the kids were allowed to be very rough on the playground when the first words we heard him speak in Spanish were “ayuda me,” help me! And my gentle boy, who at his school in Virginia we’d been told was the most well-mannered and respectful child they’d ever had, became very rough and tumble, beyond what I would consider to just be part of growing up, and kind of rude which, if you’ve ever met Riley, you know is the opposite of who he is. Yep, time to switch him.
Then there was our oldest, who is now 13. When we moved here he was given a series of standardized tests and he scored pretty much off the charts so the school recommended he skip fifth grade and go right into sixth. We thought long and hard, sought advice, weighed pros and cons, and decided to go ahead and do it. He’s always been mature for his age, never has had problems making friends, and school was a breeze for him from day one so, sure, let’s challenge him more. Worst. Mistake. Ever. During our first parent teacher meetings his math teacher told us he was really struggling, which we knew because doing homework with him was a hair-pulling nightmare. We told her that we felt it was probably because he’d missed out on some pretty fundamental stuff since he skipped a grade, her response was “he skipped a grade?” I looked at my husband with my “are you freaking kidding me???” face. The school had never told his teachers that he’d skipped fifth grade, his math teacher had no idea he’d never been taught division. Sixth grade was a struggle but he ended up getting good grades and really rising to the occasion. He’d also made a lot of friends and was enjoying playing oboe in the school band so, cool, we decided he should stay where he was. Second. Worst. Mistake. Ever.
Seventh grade was an absolute bust that ended up in a crisis meeting with his teachers and the director of the middle school, the theme of which is “how can we stop Liam from tanking?” The most frustrating thing to us as parents was that he’d been tanking for a good couple of weeks and until I got a call from his science teacher expressing her concern at his rapid downhill movement I had no idea. His grades were still good but over the course of about three weeks he’d gone into a freefall–utterly overwhelmed academically and clueless how to fix it and, for the first time ever, he didn’t come to one of us about it because, he later told us, he felt like a failure. We decided he needed a smaller school, one that could tailor a learning plan to help him excel in the areas he was strongest in and teach him some of the fundamentals he missed out on when he skipped fifth grade, and one that would help him rediscover his love of learning; he needed SEAS. The school wouldn’t refund his tuition in order to allow us to switch him immediately so we hired a tutor who would work with him on organizational skills and help make sure things were getting done. Luckily, the tutor was his wonderful science teacher who he really liked and who was someone I trusted completely to help him. He ended up pulling his fat out of the fire and, in fact, finishing quite strong in the subjects he’d been struggling with the most. Now, at SEAS, his academic needs are nurtured, and the boy who could barely write a research paper last year is, in social science, history, and English, working at a college level. And far above grade level in math, a subject he came close to failing last year. It’s kind of incredible. And I kind of want to drive over to his old school and shout at the top of my lungs “IN YOUR FACE!”
So, all three kids together in the same tiny school. This school really is more like an extended family, it’s a place where I know my children are safe and loved, challenged and driven, and a place where they are held to the highest of standards academically and behaviorally. No excuses accepted, ever. Consequently, each of our children has learned to take so much responsibility for their own education, I’m kind of blown away. At SEAS our older children have been taught all the fundamentals they need to move on–Aisleen to middle school and Liam to high school. How to research and write a paper, and properly document the research? Not a problem. Math at grade level? Pfffft, too easy, they’re way beyond it. Science? Aisleen was asked by her teacher last year to teach the kids Newton’s laws of physics because, after having been taught the first one, she’d come home and learned and researched them all. Complete with an experiment made up of her little brother and a swinging hammock, luckily nobody was hurt. Also, don’t ask them about chemistry unless you’re prepared to sit for a good, long while. And did you know that Pachelbel’s Canon and Green Day’s song “Basket Case” do this … yea, neither did I until my kids told me (they learned it in Music Appreciation).
Our youngest came back from being kind of angry and rough (like he had to live on the defensive) to his incredibly sweet, loving, thoughtful self in no time once he started at SEAS. This is the child who always greets me with a resounding “Mommy!” and a huge hug, who will always apologize to our dogs if he bumps into them while tearing around the house (complete with that winning hug), who can charm the socks off even the hardest of hearts, and who is just plain old fun to be around. Some of that had been lost at his old school, SEAS let him be himself again, he no longer had to play a child’s version of “survival of the fittest.” Just like the other two, he excels academically, that box he was forced into in his old school fell away immediately. He is in second grade but reads at least at a fourth grade level, can do complicated addition and subtraction in his head (he often comes up to me and says “mommy, write down a hard math problem for me, please!” I haven’t been able to stump him yet), and recently finished a research paper on Leif Erikson. He has also started speaking Spanish at home, this crazy mix of one sentence in English, the next in Spanish, back to English, then Spanish. I love it! His teachers at SEAS recognized immediately what he needed academically, over the past two years I haven’t spent a day worrying about having his needs met. And each one of them, pretty soon after they started teaching him, came up to me with this melty look on their faces saying “oh my gosh, Riley is so sweet …” I know, my face looks like that when I talk about him too. Or when I’m around him. Or when I’m thinking of him. Yes, the child has me tightly wound round his finger.
So, I have been at an absolute loss for how to say thank you to SEAS for being exactly what my children need, for reinvigorating in each of them their natural love for learning, for giving me so much peace of mind. The short answer is that I can’t. I can never say thank you enough, I can never properly put into words my deep gratitude, or express how utterly blessed we have been to be part of this amazing, special school for 2 1/2 years. I will never be able to say how much we are going to miss them, or how devoted we are to this tiny school. This was the only way I could think of to come close to expressing my thanks and to putting into words how much SEAS has meant to our family. We love you, SEAS!
ps. If you check out the website for the school, on the homepage, that’s our oldest with the youngest son of the school’s director/owners on his back (one of the things we love about SEAS is the vast age range of the students because it gives the older ones a chance to mentor and the younger ones a chance to connect with older kids), our youngest with his face buried in a book, and our beautiful daughter in the blue shirt, looking at the camera.
pps. If anyone would like to know which school was the one our kids went to initially, please feel free to contact me. I didn’t name them because I didn’t want this to be about them, I wanted it to be about SEAS.