Natick parents starting middle school to offer a better fit

David Vaughn is one of the founders of the Tremont School, slated to open in September. David Vaughn is one of the founders of the Tremont School, slated to open in September. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / February 10, 2011

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NATICK — David Vaughn usually draws a chuckle from a crowd of parents with his favorite opening line: “Raise your hand if you loved middle school!’’

Hardly anyone admits to warm memories of the years from fifth to eighth grades, when growing bodies, expanding emotions, and a shifting social landscape can pose greater challenges than the most rigorous academic program. For children with learning differences or developmental delays, such as attention-deficit disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, anxiety, or depression, those years can be not just hard but overwhelming, and cause long-term problems.

Based on those concerns, Vaughn and his wife, Janice, along with fellow Natick residents Ed and Jill Walker, were determined to find a program in which their children could thrive.

“Middle school doesn’t have to be the lost years for anyone,’’ said Jill Walker, a librarian.

But even in Greater Boston, one of the most academically rich areas of the country, options for students who thrive in small classes with open and experiential-based curriculum were scarce.

So the Vaughns, the Walkers and another local family decided to found the Tremont School, a private middle school whose mission is to provide an inclusive environment for a wide variety of learners, with small classes and individually tailored programs.

The school will open this fall with about 20 students in grades 5 and 6, the organizers said, with the sixth-graders including Gus Vaughn and Emily Walker. The families hope to come close to doubling the total in the fall of 2012, when a seventh-grade class is added. Plans call for the school to add a grade each year until it offers classes through Grade 12.

David Vaughn, who was one of the founding board of directors for Edward W. Brooke Charter School in Roslindale and a member of the first board of directors for Mason Pilot Elementary School in Roxbury, said Tremont’s curriculum will be approved by the local school board in its host community — they plan to sign a lease soon on space in Natick, or a nearby community — and will be funded independently through tuition and fund-raising.

The idea for the Tremont School began in 2007 when the Walkers and Vaughns began to consider the academic future of Emily and Gus, then second-graders.

The families tried special-education programs in the public schools in several communities, where they did not find as much individualized support as the children needed, before landing happily at the Tobin School in Natick, a small private day facility where both children blossomed and the families have become deeply involved.

But Tobin ends in the fifth grade, and the families had not found a suitable option. So they decided to build one.

They founded the Collaborative Learning Project, a curriculum development initiative, for which Tremont will be the first school. The school is meant to fill a gap for students needing an alternative to the traditional classroom setting, whether or not they have been pigeonholed with a “special needs’’ label, but it is not a special needs school, the parents said.

“Labels and diagnoses are really not helpful at all,’’ said Ed Walker, director of the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy. “We’re interested in each student, and their strengths and weaknesses.’’

The Walkers and Vaughns are quick to say that public school administrators worked hard to try to meet their children’s needs before the families turned to the Tobin.

But there are too many children who fall through the cracks in public schools, the parents said. Tremont is not meant as a challenge to the public schools, but as alternative for students who need another option.

“Even in the most amazing public school, there is only so much variety they can throw in when they are also coping with big class sizes and the MCAS,’’ said Jill Walker.

The idea at Tremont is to focus on each student’s learning style, and provide an atmosphere where teachers would know students so well that they could coach them on not only academic tasks, but also life skills, such as to how to interact with a classmate or working well in a small group.

A bumper sticker for the Tremont School might say, “What happens on the playground is as important as what happens in the classroom,’’ said Janice Vaughn, an administrator at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “The emphasis is the whole child.’’

Gus Vaughn, age 10, a sports fan who has enjoyed working on the Tobin’s student newspaper, said he’s pleased that his parents are creating a school and is excited to go. “It will be a lot more advanced. It’s going to be hard work,’’ he said.

Emily Walker, 11, an avid skier, said she is game for the adventure as well, but insisted that her new school have some of the hallmarks of a traditional public school — no dress code, and “gray or blue’’ lockers with combination locks. “Because cubbies are babyish,’’ she said.

Waiting their turn are younger siblings Sadie Vaughn, 8, and Alicia Walker, 9, who said they are pleased at the prospect of attending the same school when they reach the fifth grade. Families with children who range widely in needs and abilities often struggle to find one school that they all can attend, their parents said.

The Collaborative Learning Project had raised $250,000 in private donations, and hopes to hire the school’s academic director and then several faculty members over the next several weeks. Several information sessions and a word-of-mouth recruitment effort have generated a group of prospective students from a number of area communities beyond Natick, including Bedford, Concord, Framingham, and Newton, although admissions will probably not be finalized until late spring. Tuition is set at $18,800 for the academic year starting in the fall.

Founding a new school is a daunting prospect; most of the local institutions opened in the last 20 years have been aimed at filling a religious niche, such as Gann Academy in Waltham and the Rashi School in Dedham, both Jewish day schools.

The shift from the supportive atmosphere, individualized treatment and social confidence often found in elementary school to the stiffer challenges and expectations of a large middle school can be difficult for any student.

While children with very severe learning issues can generally find suitable programs, said Sudbury-based educational consultant Tim Lee, there is a need for programs that serve students who may need extra support in developing social skills, connecting with peers, and coping with the stimuli of classroom routines.

Lee, who has served as informal adviser for the Tremont School group, has 30 years experience in helping parents choose the right private school and college to suit their children, he said.

“I do see a void there, and they are tapping into a need,’’ Lee said of the Tremont founders. “It will be tough in the beginning to serve a population without a track record, but there is a lot of appeal in a school that is accepting of individual differences.’’

Jerry Sparby, a retired Minnesota elementary school principal, said he recently joined Tremont’s advisory board because the model — if successful — could be replicated nationwide to improve how school districts serve youngsters who learn differently, including the growing number of children on the autism spectrum.

“I have seen teachers and parents looking for help, and there has been very little available for them up to now,’’ said Sparby, who teaches at St. Cloud State University in his home state.

Noting the typical practice of mainstreaming students on the autism spectrum, Sparby said “they get so stressed out trying to fit in they can barely function.

“What we are doing now isn’t working, and this could really change things for the better.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at