Nontraditional methods key in success of Jemicy pupils


Dropping an aluminum bat on the floor with a clank, Jemicy School teacher Scott Murrill signals to the two teams that it is time to start round one of his social studies game, a cross between tag-team wrestling and "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?"

The object is to find countries such as South Africa, Germany and Japan on a wall-size map at the back of the classroom, with the tag teams competing for points that determine the winner. But the real reason for the game is to give Murrill's fifth-graders a geography review to help them remember continents, countries, oceans and the Great Lakes for a quiz.

It's the kind of nontraditional teaching technique that has helped more than 700 Jemicy elementary and middle school pupils learn to read, write and spell over the past 30 years.

With three decades of success in teaching children with dyslexia, the Jemicy School in Owings Mills will be adding a high school next year when Jemicy merges with the Valley Academy in Towson.

"We'll be able to see the whole spectrum of education, from the first grade through the 12th grade with this merger," said Benjamin Shifrin, who will head the new school and oversee both campuses. "We can make sure the children thrive, socially as well as academically."

Although the merger isn't final, Shifrin said combining the schools will be an advantage for students. The two schools share a similar philosophy and also serve a similar population -- students with language-based learning difficulties who are enrolled in a college preparatory curriculum.

Jemicy has 147 pupils in first through eighth grades. Valley Academy, which runs from fifth through 12th grade, has about 120 students.

"The high school is very important, especially for those students who were not diagnosed early," said Roger Saunders, a clinical psychologist from North Carolina and an early champion for children with dyslexia. He also was a founder of Jemicy, one of the first day schools in the nation to teach children with the disorder, and the first in the Baltimore area.

The Jemicy name is a combination of the first two letters of Jefferson, Mickey and Cynthia, the three Miller family siblings whose family donated land for the school.

The school was started in 1973 at the urging of parents who believed their children were not getting the right kind of education, Saunders said. Jemicy teachers use what is known as the Orton-Gillingham method -- a regimen that includes intensive tutoring and utilizes all senses.

Shifrin described Jemicy as a model for good education because it gives students the tools to be successful in the world.

"We will create programs for all the children to make sure none of them falls through the cracks," he said.

In the past, dyslexic adults and students were considered disabled. But, Shifrin said, all the students enrolled at the school have above-average intelligence.

"The students know they are smart, but they just can't make sense of the information," Rachel Weppner, a Jemicy teacher, said after a tutoring session with Daniel Escobar, 9, and Susanna Herrick, 10.

On this day, Daniel and Susanna were learning about the complexities of spelling by reviewing rules, including one on letters that never get doubled (J, K, H, V, W, X and Y). Then there are the "red" words, as Weppner called them, asking her pupils to think of a red light. These words are never spelled like they sound -- rough, for example -- and don't follow the rules.

Every day, Weppner tutors the two fourth-graders in writing, spelling and reading. She said reading is phonetically based so the words can be broken into syllables. She even uses pig Latin as a teaching tool so her pupils can sound out all the letters and switch around the words.

Weppner also gives out homework, but it's a contract between her and the pupils. No parents allowed.

There is a bond that forms between teachers and pupils, said Wendy Neuman, Jemicy's director of advancement, because the school makes a concerted effort to match common interests. Jemicy pupils also call their teachers by their first names, which are easier to remember and which make pupils feel more comfortable with their instructors, Neuman said.

Weppner is one of 50 teachers at Jemicy, where the pupil-teacher ratio is 3-to-1 and the average class size is eight. It's not just innovative teaching techniques such as the multisensory approach -- using seeing, hearing and feeling -- it's also the personal attention, individual tutoring, repetition and the building of self-esteem that has students on waiting lists to get into Jemicy.

Saunders said the earlier a child's condition is diagnosed, the better, because dyslexic children need a full-day school program.

"Dyslexics have a poor visual memory of whole word patterns, so they need to be taught with a basic phonetic approach," said Saunders, who diagnoses language-based learning difficulties and tutors children with those conditions.

Dyslexics generally have strengths in either art, mechanics, drama or music, he explained. The important thing is to determine where their strengths lie.

Many children who come to Jemicy feel rescued after discovering they didn't have the right kind of curriculum in the traditional classroom, Saunders said.

One teaching method that separates Jemicy from that classroom is the daily one-on-one tutoring session.

After going over the sounds made by certain letters, teacher Gage Monk helped third-grader Bradley Clough with his reading of Marvin's Trip to Mars. With help on word pronunciation, Bradley finished reading the book, the third in a series that he has completed. In addition to the tutoring, Bradley also reads three days a week at home with his mother.

Reading is the key to learning, said Marcy K. Kolodny, executive director of the Dyslexia Tutoring Program, a free service for people from low-income families who can't afford the tuition at schools like Jemicy, where pupils pay $22,000 a year.

"If you can't read, you can't do anything," Kolodny said.

Shifrin agrees.

"Both education and experience are critical to success," Shifrin said enthusiastically. "We need to make investments in our children. They are our future."

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