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New York City
June 2002

Windward School: Special Education At Its Best
By Tom Kertes

Wise men say that some of the greatest things in the universe once started out small. The Windward School — one of the leading places of learning for language disabled children in the U.S. — is the perfect example of that adage. “Back in 1930, the school got its name because the imagery of sailing into the wind was so fitting to all the difficulties involved in establishing it,” says Assistant Head and Director of Admissions Maureen Sweeney. “Our founder, Isabel Greenbaum Stone, had three boys and she was looking for a good independent progressive school for them to get into. After many travails, she managed to find two teachers she liked. Then she decided to buy seven acres of land right in White Plains. And the Windward School was formed.”

Over the years, while the focus has changed, the name remained. “In 1976, we became a school specifically for children with language based disabilities,” Sweeney said. “And in the late 1980s, due to the unique vision of Judith B. Hochman, we became the school that we are now.” And that is a focused place of learning strictly adhering to the Orton-Gillingham curriculum, a school that places a great emphasis on the processing of language, while teaching reading, writing, spelling and, basically, an entire way of thinking in a multi-sensory manner.

“Over the years, there has been much research done in the area of teaching language disabled students,” Sweeney said. “But for some reason, not much of this research got into the classroom. We always felt that we followed what was known to be the best available way to teach reading. And now the research is finally catching up to us, confirming what we do.”

Currently with 328 students, the Windward School is probably the only place of learning in the U.S. that hopes to decrease its student-body. “We feel that we will have accomplished our goal when our students successfully return to mainstream education,” said Sweeney. “The average term of a student here is 2-5 years — and we hope to make it briefer. In a way, our ultimate vision is to actually disappear one day. That would mean that all schools are using the best research and the Windward School would no longer fill a need.”

That, of course, could only occur in an ideal world. In the real world, Windward currently serves Grades 1-12 — is about to eliminate its high school grades by 2004. “The main reason is the State's new emphasis on a Regents diploma, rather than a local diploma,” said Sweeney. “We do more remediation. We are not a test-prep program. To change into that would completely compromise our purpose.”

Responding to current needs, Windward is actually growing. The school has just purchased nearby Berkeley College and will move its 6-12 Grades onto that campus next September.

Even on wider territory, Windward will continue to proudly define itself narrowly. “Students come here based on their disability,” said Sweeney. “We follow a rule-based curriculum. So if a student has another primary disability, we can't accept him.”

“Teachers can't just come in here, they must be specially and extensively trained,” added Sweeney. “In fact, there is a tremendous amount of teacher training and teacher supervision going on around here. Our mission is to teach with a completely consistent focus, following the same philosophy no matter what the academic subject might be.”

“Thus everybody leaves their door open around here. We are all on the same page. This is indeed a very different place. And we are proud of that difference.”

Windward has its own individual philosophy. “We put kids in ability groups. The classes are very much teacher-centered. And the students first do expository writing — in order to learn the basic rules of the language — before they embark on more creative writing.”

Sweeney feels that early identification is the best and most important way to counter dyslexia. “Look for an otherwise intelligent child in kindergarten or first grade who doesn't hold the sounds well when reading,” she said. “Or a child who has trouble rhyming or segmenting words, who has trouble taking away the 'cow' from 'cowboy.”

It's not an easy road: language disabled children are indeed sailing against a harsh wind. But the Windward School clearly makes for a far smoother sailing.#

For more information visit windwardny.org or call 914-949-8220.


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