George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Students Who Know Their Own Minds: Choosing the Nontraditional Path

Students with learning differences learn to excel in an alternative school setting.

December 16, 2003
Credit: Edutopia
Knowing How You Learn

As Patrick Morse remembers it, it all started in first grade.

"My teacher would give us assignments," recounts the recent San Francisco Bay Area high school graduate, "and I'd just draw circles on them. And then I'd take all these papers and stuff them in my desk."

Testing at the time labeled Morse as dyslexic and indicated that he suffered from attention deficit disorder. Every day for the rest of elementary school, he was taken from class to go to the school's learning center, to the scorn of his classmates.

Middle school was much the same. "I couldn't focus in class, and I was getting pulled out. The school tried to make a class where I would go instead, and it really wasn't working very well for me. People called it the 'Stupid Center' and the 'Retard Class.'"

Near the end of middle school, Morse's mother persuaded him to try Dexedrine, an amphetamine often used to treat ADD, to help him focus. It worked, and with his new clarity, he realized that his school environment was wrong for him.

"In school, I started paying attention," he says. "I actually studied for a test, which I never did before because I couldn't get myself to sit down. And when I finally started doing much better, I also realized that the atmosphere in middle school just wasn't that great."

Middle school graduation marked the opportunity for a fresh start. Morse went to an open house for Gateway High School, a 400-student charter school in San Francisco. Immediately, says the current freshman at Cornell University's School of Engineering, he felt at home. Not because everyone was exactly like him, but because everyone was different -- and nobody thought that was a bad thing.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Gateway was founded in 1998 by a group of parents whose children had learning differences and who felt that traditional public school education was cheating their kids. The high school's philosophy is inspired by the nonprofit All Kinds Of Minds Institute, which espouses the belief that students need to become aware of their individual learning styles.

The New York City Board of Education began training the city's public school teachers with the organization's professional-development workshops, called Schools Attuned, after the idea that schools must be better attuned to students' individual thought processes in order to help them. The course familiarizes teachers with eight brain functions and systems that directly affect students' learning, such as memory and spatial ordering, and offers suggestions for addressing problems with these functions.

Oklahoma and North Carolina have state-funded initiatives that allow teachers to take the Schools Attuned courses free, subsidizing the $1,200 fee. Community nonprofit organizations, such as the Health Trust, in Santa Clara County, California, are bringing the program into their local classrooms.

At Gateway, the Learning Center is where these theories are applied in practice. The center keeps information about each child's learning style, such as whether the student has problems with attention or strengths in long-term memory, in a document called a learning profile. (Download a PDF of a sample learning profile.) Teachers use this information to personalize instruction for Gateway's diverse student body. Students come to the school from more than one hundred middle schools, and the school's demographics reflect those of San Francisco: 13 percent African American, 24 percent Latino, 15 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 40 percent Caucasian, and 3 percent other. One out of four Gateway students have identified learning difficulties.

Foundation Classes Teach Acceptance

In Learning Center classes, students bring their learning styles into their work. Here, kinesthetic learner Morse Morse gives a presentation on juggling that incorporates movement.

Credit: Edutopia

In Gateway's first year, Learning Center director Ashley Hager worked with school board members to bring the Schools Attuned emphasis on brain function into Gateway's curriculum. One of the results is a series of required foundation classes designated as "Learning Center classes," which help students examine how they learn.

Psychology I, which all freshmen take, sets the stage for accepting learning differences by working with issues of identity and learning styles. (Download a PDF of the Psychology Syllabus and of Learning Styles Classroom Exercises.) Morse says that the culture-building aspect of Psychology I shaped his Gateway experience. "Psychology was probably the best class for me because it not only taught me how I learned and what I need, it also taught other people how I learn and what I need," he says.

Students also set goals in Psychology I, such as improving short-term memory, and they develop strategies to help them achieve those goals. Belen, a freshman, found strategies for paying attention. "Before I begin paying attention, I try to filter out distraction," he says. "Another thing I do is plan the outcome of my assignment. For instance, every time I have to write an essay in Humanities, I begin to write and select what I think is well written. I then have a picture of what the outcome will probably look like. Finally, whenever I am doing something dull, my resolve isn't as strong, so I reward myself each time I complete a task." (Download a PDF of the Student Goals and Strategies Essay.)

Support for Students, Parents, Teachers

The Learning Center provides a place for teachers to discuss questions of learning styles with peers and with resource specialists.

Credit: Edutopia

The Learning Center serves as a support system for students, teachers, and parents. Resource specialists in the center work with students who are having trouble identifying their learning styles, for example, or who are at a loss for ways to manage their particular difference.

Having such a resource open to students takes the burden off the teachers to solve every problem during class time. Teachers can gather there to gain insight from peers on dealing with classroom problems. And parents pitch in, too: More than thirty-five parent volunteers participate in the Learning Center's after-school tutoring program to help students struggling with subject material.

One of the most important skills Gateway teaches students is how to advocate for themselves. If a student determines, with the help of a resource specialist, that he or she has difficulties with reading, that student is responsible for requesting an accommodation such as extra time on a reading-comprehension test. Other accommodations might take the form of multiple assessments. Students with difficulties writing might use portable AlphaSmart keyboards to type essay answers; some students turn in reports on videotape.

Working for Equity

Technology helps Gateway retain a community feel as well as giving students different ways to learn and to demonstrate mastery. The school has wireless Internet connections throughout the building, and students are allowed to check out laptops, which they can take with them during the school day. Students can also check out AlphaSmarts and substitute audio books for bound books if they have trouble reading. Parents and students can access assignments and teacher pages through the school's site, and each student has a password-protected account on the server for academic project storage.

Technology, in the form of desktop and laptop computers, portable keyboarding devices, and online class assignments, helps make Gateway High School accessible for all of its students.

Credit: Edutopia

During Project Week in January, students take mini-courses such as The Art of the Trial, Gateway Gastronomics, and The Physics of Sledding; selected projects are then posted on the school Web site for others to view. Student films, slide shows, and audio clips of student stories are among the featured works.

Gateway executive director Peter Thorp is quick to point out that "this is a school that doesn't make its mark based on its facilities, but rather by creating an educational community." Thorp is no stranger to expensive, state-of-the-art facilities -- he is a formerly headmaster at the exclusive Cate School, outside of Santa Barbara, California. With the move to Gateway, he wanted to devote himself to equal educational opportunity for all types of learners from all walks of life.

"I really wanted to attack the socioeconomic discrepancies in postsecondary education," Thorp says. "Kids and families with greater resources have greater access to a wider range of options. One of the great satisfactions that I have gotten out of being here at Gateway is in our first graduating class, 30 percent of the kids were the first person in their family to go on to postsecondary education. That's fabulous. I can be run over by a bus tomorrow and feel great."

Pushing the Limits

Once-reluctant students thrive in this atmosphere of acceptance; many go on to top colleges.

Credit: Edutopia

Indicators are indeed positive that Gateway's approach is working. Of Gateway's first senior class, the class of 2002, 99 percent went on to college. Students gain acceptance to such prestigious schools as Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley. Gateway was recently recognized as a California Distinguished School, its Academic Performance Index growth for 2001 and 2002 exceeded the state's targets, and won it a Governor's Award.

"The one thing that's really neat about Gateway is that every year, they're adding stuff, they're trying new things," says Morse. He is still amazed at how different his high school experience was from all that came before. "From getting straight D's in middle school to getting almost all A's and a few B's in high school, and then being able to really work at a NASA summer internship and get into Cornell University -- it still boggles my mind how I got from there to here. And I can't wait to push myself even further and see how far I can really go."

Ashley Ball is a former staff writer at The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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  • Brain-Based Learning
  • K-2 Primary
  • 9-12 High School

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