Rewriting the Story
At Delaware Valley Friends School, exceptional students debunk the myths surrounding children with learning differences
by Pina Rahill

A lot can happen in a year, especially at Delaware Valley Friends School (DVFS) in Paoli.

Kirk Smothers is more than a year into his tenure as head of DVFS. Upon his appointment in August 2015, Smothers embarked on a “grand listening tour,” determined to gain a clear understanding of where the 30-year-old school should focus its attention in the coming decades. He was also getting acclimated to a new place, away from the home he and his family had made in New York, where he had been a founding director of a secondary-education program at a school for children with learning differences.

As Smothers reflects on his first year, one might expect him to focus on traditional metrics that define success, such as the fact that the school added fifth grade to its offering (responding to families looking for earlier placement) or that it has increased enrollment across all grades. Instead, he is interested in talking about how DVFS students are “busting common myths about students with learning differences.”

Having opened its doors to 21 students in September 1987, DVFS has grown to serve more than 170 students, grades five through 12, who have learning differences such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and central auditory processing disorder. The school also serves students with ADD/ADHD or who experience difficulties with executive function, organization and memory.

The first myth, according to Smothers, is “that [students who have learning differences] are not smart. It’s absolutely false. These kids present with all kinds of struggles—mastering reading, different aspects of memory [deficit], slow processing, ADHD or other learning challenges, but they are able to understand and master what any other student can. In fact, to be diagnosed with a formal learning disability, a student must possess average to superior intelligence.”

Smothers shares the story of how one senior, with help from a group of students, created a film called “Grassroot Feminists.” The film won the Judges’ Choice Award for New Media at the Bridge Film Festival this year. The festival, now in its 17th year, recognizes creative achievement in student-made films from Friends schools and meetings worldwide.

Smothers cites another senior, now at Franklin & Marshall College, who wrote and scored an original musical about a student who lives in a world where her learning difference is neither acknowledged nor understood. DVFS helped cast and produce the musical, thereby giving voice to an issue with which many students—including the musical’s creator—sometimes wrestle. It was this student’s way of “giving back” to a school that “saved her.”

There’s the DVFS underwater robotics team, which was the overall winner in the 2016 Greater Philadelphia SeaPerch Challenge. Open to all middle schools and high schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, the event was created to increase student interest in robotics, science, mathematics, engineering and technology through naval engineering. The team went on to compete in the national competition at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La.

Lastly, there is Anat Ferleger, a senior who was diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age. She came to DVFS in sixth grade.

“Delaware Valley Friends has helped me to learn who I am,” Ferleger says. “I feel comfortable asking for what I need to succeed. The teachers are phenomenal. They care about getting the work done, but it’s not just about education; it’s about your whole life.”

Ferleger recently completed a five-month-long emergency medical technician (EMT) course. She regularly volunteers at her local ambulance station. She is only two tests away from becoming a fully certified EMT. Ferleger hopes to go to medical school one day and thought having experience working on an ambulance would, in her words, “be a good stepping stone.”

By all accounts, Ferleger, like many of her peers at DVFS, is both motivated and smart.

A second myth that Smothers talks about has more to do with the right environment for students with learning differences.

“Parents think that if their children can just survive in their mainstream environment, they’re going to be better off,” says Smothers. “A parent will think: She will have gotten through it, and she’s going to be better off when she goes to college. The research bears out that [this is] false.”

Instead, these students often become what Smothers describes as “great hiders.”

“If they don’t hide the nature of their learning challenges,” he says, “they run the risk of being perceived by teachers and students as not capable.”

Although teenagers genuinely believe they are unique and special, at this point in their lives they do not want to be left out of the group, according to Smothers. For students who learn differently, however, they are often teased by peers and misunderstood by teachers in mainstream environments.

The approximately 60 teachers at DVFS see their job as figuring out what students need in order to be successful as learners and then delivering and tailoring instruction to meet those goals. As a result, students access curricular materials in a way they can understand, which, in turn, enables them to grow as readers, writers and researchers. Buoyed by good self-esteem, students learn how to become more aware of their own strengths and challenges.

As a result of this “nonjudgmental approach,” Smothers says, “these kids who’ve spent time hiding and being teased can let those defenses down and be themselves.” In the end, such an environment helps the students do more than “get through it.” Instead, they thrive.

Besides learning the tools needed to succeed on the academic front, DVFS students also learn self-advocacy.

On her first day of her EMT course, for example, Ferleger approached the instructor and asked for special accommodations. Asking for an accommodation is not easy, but DVFS gave her the confidence and “a lot of practice.”

“I need extra time and a separate room,” Ferleger recalls telling her teacher. She then adds, “It’s not what I want; it’s what I need.”

Now, Ferleger believes that having a learning disability has been more of an advantage than a drawback. “It gives you a chance to learn what works for you,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to learn who you are and what you excel at.”

In addition to volunteering her time on an ambulance, Ferleger plays soccer and basketball. She’s also a member of the student government and is a member of the diversity committee. If that weren’t enough, in her spare time she is training with her twin brother to skydive.

“Part of thriving is developing yourself as an active person and an active member of society,” says Smothers. He believes students at DVFS have a much richer and more rewarding school experience where they also develop the skills they need to be successful. By providing students with the support they need while still challenging them to grow, DVFS ensures that they are not spending every waking hour struggling through schoolwork. Smothers recites a common refrain from parents: “‘Thank you for giving my child his life back.’”

Delaware Valley Friends School
19 E. Central Ave.
Paoli, PA 19301

Photograph by Jody Robinson