Watching the Today Show one morning about five years ago changed Pam Draper’s life and now it could change the lives of hundreds of children with special learning needs.
Draper, founder and head of the new Gateway Lab School, opened Wednesday in the former St. Catherine of Siena School building on Centreville Road north of Prices Corner, drew her inspiration from a TV show segment on Sally Smith, founder of the Lab School of Washington, which has been serving children with learning disabilities for more than 40 years, and how she was helping to set up a new school in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia.
“The light bulb went on,” said Draper, the mother of a special needs child. “I thought, wow, that would work well for my boy. Why can’t we have a school like that in Delaware?”
She emailed Smith — “like 4,000 others who watched the show,” Draper said — and heard back from her six weeks later. In early 2007, Draper visited the Lab School of Washington, met with Smith and her staff, and came away even more impressed. She met with Greg Meece, head of the Newark Charter School, which her son was attending, and then with an education consultant, and soon planning was under way.
The result is Gateway, a charter school that will start by serving about 180 children in grades three through seven. Eighth grade will be added next year, then grades one and two in the following two years, bringing projected enrollments to 288 in 2014, Draper said.
New charter school profile: Gateway Lab School
Excerpts of interview with the head of Gateway Lab School, Pam Draper
About half the students are classified as learning disabled; most of the others have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or high-functioning autism, Draper said. About 15 percent of the students have no special needs; they’re either siblings or their parents were attracted by the school’s arts-infused, experiential and multi-sensory curriculum, she said.
While the Lab School of Washington is a private school, Draper insisted that Gateway had to be a charter — so it could serve families that don’t have the resources to pay private school tuition.
Gateway is drawing students from both private and public schools, and many of the parents whose children had attended public schools “literally cried during their interviews” as they described their struggles to receive appropriate special education services from traditional public schools, Draper said.
Draper doesn’t think parents should have to fight to get their children the education they need and she said the Gateway staff is “committed to developing a sense of inquiry and love of learning in each student.”
And another thing…
The Gateway Lab School is housed in the former St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School near Prices Corner. Three Catholic schools – St. Catherine of Siena, St. Matthew’s in Woodcrest and Corpus Christi in Elsmere – were merged into the newly named All Saints School, which will use the old Corpus Christi building. In the process, Gateway not only latched on to desks no longer needed at St. Catherine of Siena. It also hired its former principal, Debbie Ruff, as one of its teachers.
A key to achieving that goal is adopting the Lab School of Washington’s “Academic Club Method” for teaching humanities and social studies. In this approach, each grade level participates in a “club” — Renaissance, Knights and Ladies and the American Revolution are among this year’s themes — for a year-long series of art, music, drama and hands-on learning experiences. This method, Draper said, “builds confidence in kids who don’t believe they have the ability to learn.” .
Even before classes start, a sense of community is building and the students are feeling comfortable in their new surroundings, Draper said. On Aug. 20, school families and staff got together to paint the building’s hallways and common areas. “Kids who were painfully shy were leaving their parents side” to interact with other students and staff, she said.
Parent Susan Handler said she transferred her son Harry, a sixth-grader who has a neurologically based condition known as dyspraxia, from the private Centreville School because she was impressed with Gateway’s approach to learning and “the commitment and intelligence” of its staff. “It just seemed like it will be a great fit for Harry.”
Handler, a former teacher at the Tatnall School, was one of the parents Draper asked to participate in interviews with prospective staff members. What she heard in those interviews reaffirmed her decision. In the interviews, Handler said, “so many of the teachers said ‘this is the school I’ve always dreamed of.’”