By Susan Green, Special Contributor…
LAKELAND, Fla.—The old chapel of the former Florida United Methodist Center here is still a quiet place for study and meditation—at least as quiet as a library for grade-school kids can be.
On the walls are murals depicting Florida architecture, wildlife and a rocket blasting across a starry sky over a bank of computers.
“We know the sky’s the limit for our children,” said Tracey Tedder, head of Roberts Academy, a private school for children with dyslexia that opened its doors in the former Florida Conference building in 2010.
Since then, enrollment has increased steadily, and the staff moved out in early June to make way for remodeling of the building’s second floor over the summer. The construction will expand the school from seven classrooms to 12, allowing the school to accommodate more than twice its current enrollment of 68 and add sixth grade to a curriculum that previously targeted children in first through fifth grades.
The school, considered part of the Florida Southern College (FSC) campus, has come a long way since philanthropists Hal and Marjorie Roberts provided $3.5 million in 2008 to buy the former Methodist center and start the school. That grant played a significant role in the Florida Conference’s decision to move to its current center in downtown Lakeland.
Roberts Academy features a specialized instruction method known as the Orton-Gillingham approach that breaks down the steps of reading and emphasizes them by encouraging children to use more than just their visual perception of words.
For example, when learning new words, students say each letter out loud, touching one of their fingers for each letter as though counting.
“They tap out their letters. They tap out their sounds,” Ms. Tedder explained, adding that exactly how people learn to read remains a mystery. Not everyone picks it up by sight.
“They might not see the word the same way we see it,” she said. “They might see it in a different order. They might even see letters that are not there. . . . It’s a very complicated process, learning to read.”
Although children spend significant time on handwriting, the school also has embraced computer technology that helps struggling students get their thoughts in written form without the painstaking process of trying to keep up by hand.
Students in Shari Richard’s fifth-grade class used their laptop computers to research and develop PowerPoint presentations on Florida animals of their choice. Trey Russell, Ben Webb and Rachel Kilbourne, all of Lakeland, and Jace Rachid of Auburndale all read their presentations aloud without skipping a beat.
Ms. Tedder said most of the academy’s students come from Lakeland or surrounding Polk County communities, but some commute from Hillsborough County. She said one family moved to Polk County from Arizona to enroll a child at Roberts because there was no similar school available there.
Mostly, the secret to success is extra time and attention, Ms. Tedder said. Classes are small, no more than 12 students per instructor. All children get a one-on-one tutoring session at least once a week in small rooms designed for personal instruction.
If children don’t grasp a concept as scheduled, the teacher goes over it again, often in a different way, until it is mastered, Ms. Tedder said. Children who are asked to move on to more difficult concepts without mastering the basics will become frustrated, lose self-confidence and struggle with other subjects, she said.
“If you experience difficulty in learning to read . . . you’re not only going to experience difficulty in reading classes but in all areas of the curriculum because we are surrounded by language.”
The location of the building has allowed another benefit: experience in a real-world environment for students from FSC and nearby Harrison School for the Arts. Students from the FSC education department and arts and music programs of both schools have spent time working with students.
Ms. Tedder said it is too soon to tell how well prepared the academy’s students will be to transition into higher grades and eventually college. She said she has been encouraged by tales of parents who previously had to prod discouraged children to go to school but now watch them eagerly enter the classroom.
Janet Snapp, an FSC alumna and longtime public schoolteacher who now teaches second grade at Roberts, is sold on the school’s approach. She held up a handwritten log of entries by one of her students who read Charlotte’s Web chapter by chapter.
“This is what makes us feel so good about our children,” she said. “The children feel good about themselves and starting again. . . . These are bright children. Just getting stuff down on paper is hard for them.”
Ms. Green is the editor of the Florida Conference Connection.