Local Academy creates a community for learning

A place where children with special needs can feel they belong

Story and photos by Ken Palm

Sometimes children learn from people and influences that are outside the box or under the radar. Sometimes children learn clear benefits that never come without a light being shone by teachers on the shadows of places they never would have looked. And sometimes they learn, as stated in the old Chinese book, I Ching  that “obstacles are part of life just as boulders are part of a river. The river does not complain there are boulders in its path. It looks forward to the friction and loves the drama of the interaction”.

So it is with the Learning Skills Academy in Rye, New Hampshire (above). Its faculty and staff have been working with special needs children under the radar, smoothing over the difficulties of learning while shining a light on knowledge and skill development for students with learning disabilities. This is a place where children with special needs can feel they belong. It’s a community. Its Executive Director, Karen Staines wrote: “....No, we're not a village or a commune, and we're more than just a group of people. I believe the latter synonym, a kinship, meaning an identity and a unity with cooperative spirit represents the feeling here. I believe the convergence of different groups of people, both staff and students, coming together around a common idea has formed this collective spirit we call the LSA community. ... in the educational environment we are the best kept secret on the Seacoast offering an alternate to families.”  

”Learning Skills Academy was created by a local father looking for a better education for his son. He wanted a school which would celebrate strengths, address academic weaknesses directly, and bring the critical life skills of perseverance and initiative into the curriculum. He wanted a place where kids with learning disabilities could feel they belonged.”

The Learning Skills Academy’s web site, www.lsa-dcs.org, has a wealth of information about the school, its programs and its commitment to children with special needs. The school was started by Bill Carpenter, Rye resident and parent, in 1985. (See quote in caption under photo at right).

The  Academy is also a member of the New Hampshire Private Special Education Association, the Learning Disabilities of America and the Coalition of Essential Schools. It is a non-profit organization, approved by New Hampshire and Massachusetts as a private school with diploma granting privileges. High school students can earn a diploma upon meeting state graduation requirements. The Learning Skills Academy is approved for 26 students and currently has 21 in grades 4 through 12 with a staff of 15 handling teaching and professional services.  

The Academy has six members on a Board of Directors which meets once every other month to set policy for the school. It has an Executive Director, Karen Staines, who implements the policy and an educational director, Lisa MacManus, who oversees the curriculum content. Every year there is a theme. This year’s theme is “Change: Evolution and Revolution.” A student’s work is incorporated into the curriculum so that it is part of the yearlong theme

L-R: Karen Staines( Executive Director), Lisa MacManus (Education Director), Sally Jacobs Mirsky (member of Board of Directors)

Students come from many towns in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine, and some travel as long as 1 1/2 hours by bus. They are referred in several ways, usually starting with a phone call from a school district or parent. Sometimes local school districts cannot provide the services needed and they will request placement. Individual families may come and visit. And, if they feel it is an appropriate placement for their child, may apply for admission. All tests and evaluations will be reviewed, and everyone involved will come to a collective decision on whether or not the school can meet the needs of the child.

Each student learns how to live with his particular learning style, and LSA offers programs and designs classes to help students be successful. The students are bright with average to above average intelligence. They may have difficulties with reading, writing or math and have Language-Based Learning Disabilities or Nonverbal Learning Disabilities. All classes use Language-based instruction, and students learn basic skills with one-to-one instruction in the Language Lab and spend as much time there as required.  

Language Lab where students get individual and group instruction

Two days each month students attend Adventurelore and experience activities such as ocean kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing, orienteering, a ropes course, etc. This adventure education is a real-life application of higher-order thinking skills. Students learn to work as a team, develop confidence, overcome fear and bring these skills back to the school.

Communications are an integral part of the school. They are enforced with three teacher meetings held each week to make sure everybody is on the same page. With individual and group instruction (no group larger than ten, with most at six) educational plans and programs are reviewed and may be tweaked to meet the individual needs of each student. It is important for the students to experience success on a daily basis while meeting high standards. The staff teaches new ways to study and identifies the best ways to learn within each students individual learning style.

At the Learning Skills Academy parents are encouraged to be involved in the school. Classes sometimes take place in the nearby woods and at the beach. Depending on student interest, the school offers special activities such as a runners club, yoga club, etc. It has after-school programs in Math, Test Preparation, Study Skills, etc., for its own students as well as other students who attend schools in the area. It has a Tutorial Center for students aged 5-21. The Academy offers a summer program for the month of July.

Art display decorating corridor  

Student papers hanging on walls

The school building is located at the intersection of Washington Road and Route 1 just behind the businesses on the Washington Road side. As you walk in the front door you have an immediate welcoming feeling. The corridors are well lighted and show off children’s school papers that are hung on the walls. Classrooms are neat and clean and well decorated with more student work. The Gym room has bright painted walls with one side a rock climbing wall. Everybody climbs the wall. The school has two community dinners each year. The Gym is transformed three times a year for school dances, one a semi-formal.

Teachers and students are busy working the lesson plans of the day. There are smiles on their faces. You can tell they are happy. They look and act as though they belong. There is a kinship, a community, an LSA community.

More photos of the Learning Skills Academy

School Library

Evolution Map of United States

Jared Roberts with hula hoops in Gym

Climbing wall in Gym

Great Bay Water Sampling Map

World Map

February, 2009