Specialized Carroll School finds room to grow in Waltham

Lincoln facility buys Bartlett School site

Head of school Steve Wilkens and trustees Lisa de Cristo and Morag Bamforth (from left) watch a basketball game at the Carroll School's new facility in Waltham last week. Head of school Steve Wilkens and trustees Lisa de Cristo and Morag Bamforth (from left) watch a basketball game at the Carroll School's new facility in Waltham last week. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Nancy Shohet West
Globe Correspondent / January 21, 2010

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Few things are as tough on a child’s confidence as having trouble learning to read. So after Morag Bamforth’s son was diagnosed in first grade with dyslexia, she enrolled him at the Carroll School in Lincoln.

The small classes of six to eight children, all with similar issues, have so impressed her that she is now a trustee of the private school.

“David’s future is every bit as wonderful as that of his 17-year-old sister, who has no learning disability,’’ Bamforth said.

The Carroll School’s specialized mission - to give students with language-based learning disabilities the tools they need to succeed - is striking a chord with more families despite the dismal economy.

In response to rising enrollment, it has purchased the former Bartlett School in Waltham, which closed last June amid financial woes.

Carroll students have already begun using some of the new facilities, including the gym, and the transition to a two-campus school will be completed next fall.

With enrollment dropping at some area private institutions, Carroll’s head of school, Steve Wilkins, had prepared his board of trustees to expect fewer applications. When the school exceeded its target enrollment of 280 by 17 students, Wilkins shifted gears and suggested that the board purchase additional campus space and expand the number of students in each grade.

“They looked at me a little funny,’’ he said. “They said, ‘In this economy, where two months ago you were warning us about low enrollment ahead, now you think we should purchase a $5.4 million property?’ ’’

Wilkins said he believes his school benefited in part from economic problems in nearby communities. As school budgets are cut, services for children with more severe disabilities, or involving behavioral issues, are likely to be given priority over those with learning disabilities, he said.

“Public school systems have had to make tough decisions,’’ Wilkins said. “They are not going to reduce services for children with significant problems because those children can present a disruption that needs to be dealt with. So instead, they cut back on services for well-behaved intelligent children.’’

Stephanie Powers, administrator for special services for the Lincoln schools, said that her district and many others are more than adequately equipped to handle learning disorders, and noted that many public systems follow the Orton-Gillingham approach to language-based learning disabilities, just as the Carroll School does.

Though Powers agrees that the Carroll School has a strong program and considers it “a good neighbor,’’ she said, she believes in “a strong commitment to inclusionary learning,’’ in which children with special needs are educated alongside their peers.

“When possible, children with disabilities should be interacting with children who are typical,’’ Powers said. “It benefits everyone. It gives the students with disabilities a skill set that’s going to help them be integrated into society when they leave school, while also teaching their typical peers tolerance and acceptance. The ultimate hope is that the typical children will go on to be open to relationships to peers with disabilities throughout their lives.’’

There are fiscal benefits to keeping learning-disabled children in public schools as well, Powers said. For less than what it would cost a town to fund cover the costs of two local students attending the Carroll School, under the state’s Chapter 766 requirements, it could hire a special-education teacher who would oversee a classroom of children.

Annual tuition at the Carroll School is slightly over $36,000, with public funds covering about one-third of the student body under the state’s special education law. Of the remaining students, about 23 percent receive some degree of financial aid.

While course content is similar to that offered in mainstream schools, classes are small so that teachers can work with closely students to strengthen their oral and written language skills. But the curriculum includes the arts and physical education as well, “so that getting special help doesn’t mean having a watered-down program,’’ said Wilkins.

Admissions director Lesley Nesbitt said that parents and educators alike are investigating the possibility of dyslexia earlier on. “In years past, we’ve seen admissions bubbles in grades four to six,’’ Nesbitt said, noting that is the age when dyslexia would be diagnosed. “Parents of kindergarteners and first-graders now know about dyslexia, and much of the stigma around learning disorders is going away too. People are much more open to talking about these things.’’

The Carroll School’s new facility, which has 53,000 square feet of educational space, will allow the school to add a Grade 9 program and eventually grow by 100 students.

The Carroll School also offers a remedial summer program at its Lincoln campus; with the Waltham facilities, it will initiate a summer program in technology and engineering, administrators said. In addition, the school provides teacher training for master’s level students in education programs, and serves as a research facility for a language enrichment program developed at Tufts University.

“In the end, our winning argument was that it helps the school accomplish every one of our strategic objectives at an unbelievably low price, compared to doing new construction on our Lincoln campus,’’ Wilkins said.