The May Center for Learning

News

In state with poor education marks, May Center for Learning shines
Clarence-at-table-smiling.jpg

Santa Fe New Mexican

In state with poor education marks, May Center for Learning shines

Visitors to the May Center for Learning’s early childhood facility, in a former preschool at the St. John’s United Methodist Church, are greeted with a tower of blocks that reaches halfway to the ceiling.

Classrooms are filled with bins of brightly colored objects — tiles with rough-textured letters that children can trace with their fingers, silk butterflies, wooden puzzles. These are key educational tools for the school’s young students, who have dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Tactile objects help them learn to decode the strings of letters that make up words and sentences.

On a recent morning at the school, when its five-week summer program was in session, preschoolers in one room were busy working with such tools, practicing letter sounds and tackling three-figure math problems.

In another room, a handful of 7- and 8-year-olds who had fallen behind their peers in school — likely the result of learning disabilities that had gone unnoticed for too long — were working to catch up, reading a series of three-letter words: gap, lap, cap, map.

A recent report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a nonprofit advocacy group, found that New Mexico’s public education system has one of the poorest records in the nation when it comes to serving students with learning and attention disorders. This is something the May Center’s founders have known for years.

The state, which consistently ranks near the bottom in student achievement, is “way behind the curve” in providing support and resources to students with “learning differences,” said Amy Miller, a co-founder and executive director. She and Karen Lindeen, both experienced educators, launched the May Center, a 5-year-old private school and nonprofit outreach center, to help address the shortcomings.

The center began with a summer program that served seven students. Since then, it has grown, with 65 kids enrolled in preschool through eighth grade for the upcoming school year at two separate sites, one for children in prekindergarten to fourth grade and another for students in grades 5-8. Tuition is about $20,000 a year, Miller said, though the school has a financial aid program to help defray the costs for many families.

But the bigger mission of the nonprofit, Miller said, is outreach — raising awareness of resources, diagnostic services and the importance of early identification, offering teacher training and certification programs, tutoring students in public schools, and offering support and education to parents and kids, with a goal of helping them become self-advocates.

“We want to reach more kids than just the ones that can pay,” she said.

School staff members use the term “learning difference” rather than disability.

“More and more, the research shows that the kids we work with have a neurological difference in the way their brain processes language,” Miller said. “We don’t think of it as a disability, particularly with dyslexia.”

The condition is associated with a lot of strengths, she added. “These are kids who oftentimes become engineers or architects or artists. There are real gifts that come with it.”

The May Center helps students use their gifts to hone other skills that they are slower to develop. During the summer program, for instance, students used science and art skills to design and build a five-hole miniature golf course with an Alice and Wonderland theme that was featured Friday night in a fundraiser for the school at the Railyard Park. The ambitious hands-on project incorporated language arts and math concepts.

The school also works to build students’ confidence, teaching them to focus on their strengths rather than the challenges they face.

“Some kids feel like they don’t belong in school,” students at the May Center wrote in an art-filled book, The Way I See It, published in 2015 by Santa Fe-based Azro press.

“But these kids actually just learn in a different way,” the students wrote. “It helps to learn with lots of visuals instead of just words. They need time think. … But give them a chance. They are big thinkers. Creative innovators. Brilliant problem-solvers. And artists.”

With a student-to-teacher ratio of about 6-to-1, Miller said, the May Center is able to offer personalized learning, meeting the needs of each student and helping all kids reach their full potential.

But in a public school setting, she said, students’ gifts can get lost as they languish behind their classmates.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities conducted a survey of students who had dropped out of public schools, and found that a wide majority didn’t like school and had poor relationships with teachers and other students. In its report on how students with learning disabilities fare in each state, the center emphasized the need for earlier diagnosis and more teacher training. Often, the report said, dyslexia and other disorders aren’t identified until after the third grade.

Miller agreed that early identification and teacher training are key to improving outcomes for students.

If a learning difference is detected before a child enters school, she said, interventions can help break down the learning barriers — and the child is less likely to experience the years of frustration, and sense of failure, that lead so many students to give up on school altogether.

The May Center is putting a heavy focus on teacher training, so that educators in public schools can better determine students’ needs, offer alternative teaching strategies, and help steer students toward other resources.

“The teacher training is something we’re really excited about,” Miller said. “We’ve been working on it, but this past year, it’s really been taking off.”

So far, she said, the center has trained about 100 teachers, most in Santa Fe but also some in Albuquerque and El Paso.

The training, offered to individual teachers or to an entire school staff, provides an overview of learning disabilities, so that teachers understand how to identify various conditions. The program includes reading simulations to give teachers a clear understanding of what students with disabilities experience as they struggle to decode text.

For those who want more intensive training, the center offers a certification program in multisensory language teaching, a method of instruction for students with dyslexia. All teachers and tutors at the May Center must earn the certification, Miller said.

Through the local nonprofit Communities in Schools Program, which offers tutoring and other student and teacher support services in public schools in Santa Fe, the May Center provides specialized tutors at the Aspen Community Magnet School and Camino Real Academy. It hopes to expand the program.

Kids with learning disabilities from public schools and other private schools also visit the May Center’s site on Galisteo Street for individual tutoring.

Carolee Dean, president of the Albuquerque-based Southwest Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, a regional nonprofit that hosts an annual conference on dyslexia, said the state is fortunate to have schools like the May Center to help students thrive.

“While it is true that New Mexico schools, as a whole, struggle to provide adequate services to students with learning disabilities,” Dean said in email, “there are some excellent schools (both private and public) that have been very innovative in creating programs to address these students’ needs.”

Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-986-3095 or cmiller@sfnewmexican.com.

Rebecca Anderson