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18 Aug, Thursday
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Montreal Families

High school adapts its teaching to each student

A child who has difficultly at school soon feels different from his classmates. He may struggle with tasks that other children seem to complete with ease. Or he may have to leave the classroom each day or week to work with a specialist. Too often, these kids come to think that they won’t ever be able to succeed at school like all the other students.

However, one Montreal school is dedicated to not only making these children feel welcome and secure but also to ensuring their success in high school. Centennial Academy in N.D.G. is a small, independent English high school, serving about 200 young people in grades 7 to 11. While some students have learning disabilities or mild academic challenges, others go to Centennial because the parents are impressed by the individualized approach to teaching and find the small size of the school appealing.

Centennial tries to meet each student’s learning needs through an Individual Success Plan. Every student receives one. It’s similar to a blueprint for helping the school work with the student, and vice versa. In the plan, the teachers try to create a complete portrait of the student: is she a reader? Does she have good study habits? Does she have an undiagnosed learning problem? Does she feel confident enough to ask questions in class?

“Once we understand who this student is, we can then find the resources to fit his or her needs,” says Principal Angela Burgos. So, for example, a student with dyslexia can use a computer program for help with reading. Classrooms at the school have rugs and soothing lighting to cut down on distractions for students with attention problems. As well, teachers meet weekly to discuss how students are doing and to ensure that anyone who appears to be falling behind can receive extra help.

In a policy that surprises many new parents, Burgos says she asks that families not hire tutors if a child is having a problem. “We want the learning to take place in the classroom,” she says. “Once you hire a tutor, you’ve moved that learning away from the school.”

Burgos also says that there is also a question of accountability to consider. She firmly believes that “there are no lazy children, only lazy adults.” If a child is struggling, she says, the school should be willing to find the resources and tools to help that student.

One simple way of doing that, Burgos adds, has been extending the school day so time can be set aside to help kids. During the final school period, teachers are available to assist students with homework and answer questions. And sometimes students are separated into small groups to work on organization or social skills. But, because everyone has something to work on during this period, the students don’t feel stigmatized for needing coaching in these specific skills, Burgos says. “It’s just part of the school day.”

Tax break on tuition fees

Centennial has been able to develop such an expertise in serving children with diagnosed learning disabilities that families can deduct the school’s fees as a medical expense. “We can demonstrate that what we do is truly effective for these children,” Burgos says, noting that 98 per cent of students graduate.

The school’s admissions process reflects its commitment to doing things differently. Applications are looked at on a “rolling” basis, meaning families can apply one throughout the year. Report cards and test results are evaluated and there is also an interview with both the students and parents.

And while Centennial has built a reputation as a school that adapts its teaching to meet the needs of various students, it doesn’t ignore young people’s needs for activities. There is a wide range of sports programs as well as a school band (that often plays at the school’s weekly assemblies). All students are required to complete 10 hours of community service, which can include preparing Christmas baskets for needy families or participating in a Terry Fox run to raise money for cancer research.

Burgos says that the goal of all these activities, inside and outside the classroom, is to build young people’s confidence so they can engage in what she calls “the hard work of learning.” She describes this as the ability of student to truly take charge of his or her education. Ideally — and Burgos notes that becoming an autonomous learner is a lifelong process — young people can work with their strengths and weaknesses to tackle schoolwork. For example, a student who learns best by hearing material would turn to a computer program that reads texts aloud.

Burgos says she thinks that this process of “learning how to learn” is the most important aspect of Centennial. “We’re not giving children fish, we’re teaching them how to fish,” she says, so that when they reach the greater world of university studies and the workplace, they are ready to take responsibility for themselves.

Centennial Academy is located at 3641 Prud’homme Ave. in N.D.G. School fees are $16,000 per year, excluding uniforms and some supplies. For more information, call (514) 486-5533 or visit www.centennial.qc.ca.

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