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Odyssey School celebrates 20 years

Even now, 22 years later, John Tompkins remembers the feeling of frustration. He recalls the phone calls and waiting lists as he and his wife, Sara, tried to get their 8-year-old son, newly diagnosed with a learning disorder, into an appropriate educational setting.

It wasn't that their son, Jack, was flunking out of the private school he then attended. He was getting B's in a highly competitive environment. But he was struggling and homework was endlessly frustrating.

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"I didn't get it. I thought you could pull a switch and fix it," said Tompkins, a Cockeysville resident and wealth advisor who found out otherwise when Jack's school suggested he needed a different environment.

In the end, after nearly two years of effort and fund-raising, the Tompkins and seven other families in a similar situation founded The Odyssey School, for children with dyslexia and language-based learning differences.

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The school opened in fall of 1994 with 24 students in a refurbished building on Roland Avenue. This year, it celebratedits 20th anniversary with a celebration Friday evening, and Tompkins couldn't be prouder.

"We had no idea if the kids would come," said Tompkins, who spent the summer before the school opened urging parents to enroll their children.

"Now, it makes us teary-eyed [thinking about] how many students we've helped," Tompkins said. His son went on to graduate college, get married and become a plumber with hopes of starting his own business.

On a brilliant fall weekday, The Odyssey School, which in 2002 relocated to Stevenson, is in session. It has 151 students in grades kindergarten through eighth.

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If you didn't know better, you'd think you had stepped into a lovely, gracious mansion with white pillars and a spacious brick patio in front. An elegant staircase winds down into the two-story foyer where you can relax on comfortable settee and upholstered chairs.

Then, a bell rings and the quiet mood changes. Suddenly, children of all ages appear, dressed in plaid and khaki school uniforms, carrying books and crisscrossing the foyer as they hurry to their next class.

The building looks warm and homey but it was intentionally designed that way. "I didn't want it to look institutional. I wanted it to be welcoming," said Gordon Jones, 84, a Monkton resident and retired developer who researched buildings and laid out the design on his dining room table.

Jones is known as "Mr. Odyssey" for his generous support of the school. The school moved to its current campus, thanks to Jones, among others, who negotiated the purchase of its 42-acre campus and personally raised $12 million for the new school building.

Jones has dyslexia but wasn't diagnosed until age 40.

"I struggled through life with reading and writing. I was yelled at and put down. I was treated like I was dumb," said Jones, who became involved in the school shortly after it was founded. His granddaughter, now a nurse, is a former student.

Martha Sweeney is head of school. A speech pathologist with an expertise in dyslexia and other language-delay disorders, Sweeney said the common perception of dyslexia is incorrect.

"People think dyslexia is mixing up letters. But it's more about auditory — sound sense," said Sweeney, a Towson resident, sitting in her office off the foyer. Dyslexics "can't isolate individual sounds and remember them in sequence. It hampers their ability to read. It may affect their ability to solve math problems, too."

It is not unusual for students to enter Odyssey at various grade levels from public or private schools. "They may not be flunking but they are not succeeding in school," said Pam Bilger, a Towson resident and math department chair of the school.

By then, the child has likely encountered the name-calling Jones did as a youth. They may be discouraged and lack self-confidence, and that can lead to acting out and school avoidance.

For children with learning disabilities, early intervention is helpful, Bilger said. "There is a lot you can do with 4- and 5-year olds," but even so, parents may choose to ignore warning signs or "wait until their backs are against the wall."

Critical grades are first, the start of reading, and third, when course-work accelerates. "You have to be at a certain level," said Bilger about third grade. "If you can't read well, you get left behind quickly."

With a 3-to-1 student-teacher ratio and daily individual sessions, the goal of Odyssey School is for each student to develop to his or her potential.

"We give them a bag of strategies," said Sweeney, mentioning skills like understanding oneself and asking questions along with a language-intensive, research-based curriculum.

By eighth grade, all Odyssey students segue into regular high schools, both public and private. Before then, though, 35 percent of students leave Odyssey to mainstream in their appropriate grades.

"And they're successful when they do," Sweeney said. "Every year, I get educators who call me and say, 'Wow, your child could teach a study skills class.'"

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