Summit School teacher shares passion for students with disabilities

Debora Coates-Consugar has a penchant for making math simple and enjoyable for students at Summit School, an Edgewater-based, not-for-profit education center for children with dyslexia and other learning problems.

But sometimes the math department chair will encounter a struggling student who tells the teacher she can't possibly understand how frustrating certain subjects can be.

Truth is, Coates-Consugar knows it all too well.

"I'm dyslexic, too," says Coates-Consugar, fighting back emotions as she reflected upon once having endured the same struggles she now helps her students overcome.

Local school and community officials have lauded her efforts, as she was recently named 2012-2013 Anne Arundel County Private Schools Teacher of the Year.

Another Edgewater-area educator, South River High School Spanish teacher Jodie Hogan, was named county Public School Teacher of the Year at the 27th annual Excellence in Education Awards. The event was sponsored by Comcast and presented by the Anne Arundel Public School System and the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce.

Coates-Consugar has taught for 23 years at the Summit School, which is now in its 25th year. The center, situated on a 15-acre campus, has 103 students in grades one through eight. Most go on to mainstream high schools upon graduation.

Joan Mele-McCarthy, head of school at Summit, said Coates-Consugar is among the reasons about 99 percent of Summit's former students have gone on to graduate high school, with 85 percent going on to college.

"She is the heart and soul of Summit," Mele-McCarthy said.

"She epitomizes the multi-sensory teacher, the teacher who cheers kids on when they are the most frustrated, the teacher who can deliver a very frank message to kids in a way that is compassionate and is meaningful and actually changes behavior," she said.

A Pennsylvania State University graduate who grew up in central Pennsylvania, Coates-Consugar relishes the efforts that schools like Summit make for students with learning differences.

Her passion comes, in part, because she can remember a time when some educators scarcely showed interest in nurturing and developing such minds – and were often more prone to stereotype. Her struggles — along with her sense of accomplishment in learning sign language and becoming an interpreter for a hearing-impaired friend in high school — bolstered her desire to work with those with disabilities.

"Back then they just called you the 'dumb kids' or the 'slow kids,' " Coates-Consugar said. "I remember learning to read. Back then when you fell far enough behind — you're in fifth grade and you're reading on the second-grade level — they took you aside and they put you in a small room.

"They had open-space classrooms and there were no walls," she said. "So for a dyslexic, ADHD person you were supposed to teach yourself. You took all of your stuff from center to center, which was quite challenging, but you couldn't read it, but you were supposed to teach yourself. That wasn't very successful. So when I finally fell enough behind they put me in a special reading room."

It was then, Coates-Consugar said, that she was given a mentor who helped her develop her reading skills.

"My mentor made all the difference for me," she said. "I went from reading at a third-grade level to eighth-grade level in a year. I suddenly grew to like it, just like we do for kids at Summit."

Many of the methods Coates-Consugar implements at the school can be used with students in most any learning environment, she said.

"Multi-sensory teaching is the way it needs to be," she said. Students "need to move. Sometimes these kids need to play a game with [learning], whether it is with a ball throwing back and forth, breaking all the steps into small enough bites for them to learn. And you always have to go back and review. A lot of our kids don't learn in one shot."

Coates-Consugar said she tailors teaching methods for each student, learning their strengths and tendencies so she can know when and how to push them to excel.

And she's eager to convey that she's aware of what they're going through.

"I tell them, 'I do understand, and you have a choice,' " she said. "You can choose to be a successful dyslexic person and work very hard — sometimes twice as hard for half the results, but it can happen. Or, you can choose not to be successful."

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