LIFE-LONG LEARNING: “Our students with dyslexia or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) often experience language-based learning differences. We offer a multi-sensory, hands-on learning experience, a traditional and enriched curriculum. Learning can be approached in different ways.” The administrative team at Cambridge School in Pennington includes, from left: co-founder Jim Peters, co-founder, head of school and executive director Deborah C. Peters, assistant head of school and educational administrator James Maher, and assistant head of school and director of admissions Melody Maskell.
“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I’ll remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”
This sentiment, thought to have originated with a Chinese philosopher circa 200-300 B.C., underlies the educational philosophy of Cambridge School in Pennington.
Established in 2001 by Jim and Deborah C. Peters, the day school focuses on educating students with dyslexia, ADHD (attention deficit disorder), and others who struggle with language-based learning differences.
“Cambridge School was founded on the belief that every child deserves the opportunity for an excellent education,” reports the school’s mission statement. “We are committed to providing that education in a warm, nurturing, and individualized learning environment for children who learn differently.
“We provide a multi-sensory, whole-child approach to education in a non-clinical, nurturing traditional school environment. We promise our students opportunities to investigate their interests, acquire confidence in their abilities, believe in their own intrinsic worth, and develop the skills necessary to achieve success.”
Located at 100 Straube Center Boulevard, the school currently offers enrollment for kindergarten through 9th grade. In September of 2015, it will expand the Upper School to include 10th grade, and by 2017, the school plans to offer a fully operational Upper School with the inclusion of 11th and 12th grade.
Head of School Deborah C. Peters, a nationally-certified counselor and licensed family therapist, has extensive training in special education and multi-sensory education. A former instructor at the college level, Ms. Peters also served as counselor to junior and senior students.
“I saw that many of the students were struggling with their college work, and it was manifested in anxiety and worry about their classes,” she recalls.
In some cases, she believed that they were evidencing language-based learning differences, and Ms. Peters began to think about starting her own school, one where early intervention would be emphasized.
“I want people to know that dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence. It affects children and adults, and is a neurological condition. Research shows the earlier dyslexia is diagnosed, the better. Early intervention is important.
“I wanted to have a school that began with kindergarten, and I also wanted the school to be accredited by a third party for quality assurance. We are accredited by the Middle States Association Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools.”
Having such accreditation enables the school to explore, investigate, and execute a variety of educational methods, adds James Maher, assistant head of school and educational administrator. “With this accreditation and the autonomy of working in a private school environment, we can be on the cutting edge of research. For example, we go to the Brain Conference, held twice a year, at which neuroscientists and clinicians take part. We are learning so much more about dyslexia, including identifying it and ways to address it.”
As the research advances and more data become available, new opportunities emerge both for teachers and students to find the best educational possibilities.
“Even as recently as a year ago, dyslexia was not recognized by schools as a learning disability,” points out Ms. Peters. “Our teachers have always had specialized training, including our own Cambridge School training, and we also emphasize continuing education. The level of training our teachers have is outstanding. Our faculty is so collaborative, enthusiastic, and well-trained.”
In addition, a professional staff includes four speech/language pathologists and an occupational therapist.
Individualized instruction is an important priority at the school. The average student-teacher ratio is 4 to one, adds Melody Maskell, assistant head of school and director of admissions. “All our students are individuals and learn in different ways. We have a very nurturing learning environment, and self-advocacy is encouraged. We want kids to ask questions and be comfortable in the class.
“And the secret to our success is consistency, cutting edge technology, scientific research, and our social cognitive strategies.”
The majority of students at Cambridge School are dyslexic, while others face the challenges of ADHD or a combination of both of those conditions.
“ADHD kids can have trouble with executive function, planning and organizing, and following through,” notes Ms. Peters. “We have introduced a mindfulness program, targeting attention and ability to focus, and the kids are calmer and more relaxed afterward. We see that some of our kids are out-of-the-box thinkers, critical thinkers. And many are creative and artistic. We offer both fine arts and performing arts classes for all our students.”
The Arts Center is a vital part of the school’s focus. Performing arts, visual arts, music (including a bell choir) are all emphasized. Integration of many of the disciplines is included to offer students a well-rounded program. Physical education, Taekwondo, computer literacy, architecture, graphic design, and social skills are integral parts of the Cambridge plan.
“The kids are often right-brained and artistically-focused,” observes Mr. Maher. “We have courses in architecture and engineering for the Lower School, and graphic design in the Upper School. It’s a focus on further strengthening their visual/spatial skills.”
For children who learn differently, there is often a discrepancy between ability and performance, point out the experts at Cambridge School. They may have an uneven learning profile, and typically, cycles of failure and frustration are established.
“Breaking through those cycles is the most important goal,” explains Ms. Peters. “To accomplish this, we believe in enhancing self-esteem by focusing on positive outcomes and meaningful successes.”
Students at Cambridge are of average to superior intelligence, she adds, and they face a range of difficulties, including reading, writing, spelling, and/or math. Their struggles can also include memory problems, expressive and receptive language difficulties, poor concentration, direction, and lack of organizational skills.
The Cambridge curriculum employs the Wilson Reading System, Orton-Gillingham, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, Making Math Real™, and other multi-sensory modalities, which are widely recognized as the leading methods for teaching children with language-based learning differences.
“Our program is also designed to capitalize on each child’s unique strengths, aptitudes, and interests, while remediating weaknesses,” says Ms. Peters.
Consistency is emphasized, she adds, and “on a daily basis, across the curriculum, students practice, utilize, and reinforce research-based learning tools to internalize these powerful strategies for life.”
Computer literacy is taught throughout the curriculum, using state-of-the-art technology, such as a SMART BOARD™ in every classroom and laptop computers for students at all levels.
“Also, iPad Technology is incorporated into our middle school curriculum to assist with organization and executive function skills,” notes Ms. Peters.
Because of the small class size, teachers are closely involved with each child’s progress, and interact with the students continually, focusing on each child’s strengths and learning needs.
In addition, a full complement of after-school activities features sports, such as soccer, cross-country and track, boys and girls basketball, and lacrosse, including athletic competition with other schools in the area.
Cambridge students are also involved in community service, including projects with the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank “Students Change Hunger” program, among others.
From the initial 10 students in 2001, Cambridge School now has an enrollment of 125, with students coming from the Princeton/Pennington area and well beyond, including northern New Jersey, the shore, and Pennsylvania.
An important focus of the school has been to prepare the students for academic success in other schools when they have graduated from Cambridge after eighth (now ninth grade). With the addition of 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, remaining at Cambridge will now be an option.
It is clearly a happy learning environment. The school itself is visually attractive, emphasizing light with lots of windows, featuring the high-ceilinged arts center, and a fully-operational gym.
Variety of Activities
On a recent afternoon, this visitor witnessed students at all levels engaged and interested in a variety of activities, from music sessions with faculty from the Conservatory at Westminster Choir College, to fifth graders working on a project in conjunction with Princeton University students, to eighth graders rehearsing scenes for a play.
“The students here are wonderful,” says Ms. Peters. “They want to learn, and we want to continue to help as many students as possible. I also feel tremendously blessed to have had James and Melody helping me from the beginning of the school.”
Cambridge School makes a difference in the lives of its students today and into the future. Graduates have gone on to successful academic careers in many other schools and colleges.
And the students are mindful of the school’s impact on their lives. Ms. Peters recently received a letter from a former student, currently a senior at The Pennington School, who has received early acceptance to Lafayette College. He expressed his gratitude for his educational experience at Cambridge.
Excerpts from the letter include: “No words can describe my gratitude for my having been able to attend Cambridge and for you to believe in me. You and Mr. Peters not only gave me a dynamic education, you gave me a future!
“If it was not for Cambridge, I might be doing exactly what my second grade teacher in public school told my mom: stocking shelves at the grocery store and dropping out of high school. But that is far from where I am going. Going from not being able to read coming into Cambridge to now being inducted into Pennington’s chapter of the Cum Laude Society is a stark difference.
“You have shown me that as long as I am willing to work hard, there is nothing I cannot do because I am dyslexic. You believed in me when everyone else did not.”
Indeed, as Ms. Maskell emphasizes, “At Cambridge, we change lives.”
The school will hold an open house on February 11. It will also offer opportunities in its four-week summer program this year to the general public.
For further information on admission and tuition, call (609) 730-9553 or consult the website: www.thecambridgeschool.org.