At Winsor School, the Student-Teacher Relationship Drives Academic Support

Laura Vantine
After working in this area for more than 22 years, and consulting with independent schools all over the world, I believe these paradigms for learning centers, testing, and accommodations are outdated.

Now, it's true that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires independent schools to provide reasonable and appropriate accommodations to students with diagnosed learning disabilities who demonstrate a "functional limitation" in a "major life activity" including learning. However, it is also true that not every student evaluated and diagnosed with a specific disability requires accommodations.

The three big issues as I see them:
  • Testing is often the first solution for students who appear to struggle in school, and the current "trend to test" has gotten out of hand.
  • The labels that stem from testing often mask more than they reveal about a student's cognitive function and academic performance.
  • The resulting boilerplate recommendations, such as "preferential seating" and "extended time," are attempts to provide simple solutions to complex problems without considering other more effective supports for students.

A School-wide, Collaborative Model

To effectively tackle these issues, we must initiate a new conversation and action plan — which isn't about testing, learning disabilities, ADHD, or extended time. At Winsor School (MA), an all-girls day school for grades 5–12 serving 460 students, we have shifted from a learning center model of academic support to a school-wide, collaborative model. This means that academic support practices are driven not by a perceived need or a demand for accommodations. Instead, the model is driven by the student-teacher relationship.

New Conversations and Empowering Language

By empowering teachers to directly engage in academic support and pushing students to take ownership of how they learn, our conversations have changed substantially over the last nine years. Instead of "getting students tested," I might suggest to a family that "we need a deeper understanding of their daughter's learning needs." Instead of "giving a student extended time," we meet as a team and include input from the student and teachers to determine what the student needs to do her best learning. In other words, we customize our interventions to meet students where they are.