Learning to Thrive
At Delaware Valley Friends School, students with learning differences discover a safe place to take risks, build confidence and become strong leaders
by Bill Donahue

For most students, participating in a high school theater production is a memorable achievement.  At Delaware Valley Friends School (DVFS) in Paoli, students have turned this tradition into something truly remarkable.

DVFS students are currently working together to write, produce and perform an all-original musical—Romeo & Juliet Remix, an interpretation of the Shakespeare classic, reimagined for modern times. Each student working on the production, much like every other student at DV FS, has been diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia or some other learning difference.

 “Our students are creative in so many ways—writers, performers, dancers, composers—and they’re participating in the entire creative process of this production,” says Kirk Smothers, DVFS’s  head of school. “There’s a great sense of pride, because there’s no part of it they haven’t touched. A lot of schools will buy the right s to the script and music for Little Shop of Horrors or another show that we all know, and even putting on a show like that is a lot of wo rk. What we’re doing is unique, because we’re empowering kids to put the whole show together from start to finish.”

Romeo & Juliet Remix, w hich is slated for a three-night run in mid-March, is DVFS’s third original theater production, beginning with Resonance, a musical writ ten by a graduating senior—Helena Nocentino ’16—about a   girl with learning differences. Fewer than 10 students participated in the school’s first original production. This year, the number of students in the cast and crew has grown to nearly 30, according to Tim Simmons, a DVFS music and English teacher.

 “We asked our students, ‘What do you want to say?’” says Simmons. “We went line by line through Romeo an d Juliet, first asking i f it was still relevant and then finding out what resonated with the students. Then we rewrote it along the lines  of what someone today might say. We flipped the story on its head.”

The students get plenty of guidance along the way. Simmons, a former g ig drummer, is helping the students develop and hone the  musical arrangements. Khalil Munir, a DVFS alum who now serves the school as theater and movement teacher, will direct the production. And Lisa Howell, the school’s marketing  and communications director, will serve as production manager.

 “Throughout the creative process, students learn how to collaborate and compromise, and that includes letting go of ideas that don’t quite fit,” Simmons says. “There’s a huge element of the unknown with a production like this, so the students are learning how to work through discomfort and failure. One of my biggest priorities as a teacher is to focus not on the product but on the process. If you focus on the process, the product will be much better.”

Not Just ‘Getting By’
For some of the parents in attendance, the premiere of Romeo & Juliet Remix will be a highly emotional experience, especially for those whose children struggled through more traditional schools prior to finding DVFS. Some still remember feeling anxious, frustrated or fearful about their child’s future after having received well-intentioned yet troubling advice at parent-teacher conferences.

 “Don’t get your daughter’s hopes up about going to college,” they said. “If you get enough additional help, your son should be able to get by,” they said.   At DVFS, which recently expanded to include a small but thriving elementary school division for grades three through five, students  do much more than simply “get by.” Rather, they explore new territory, build their confidence and discover opportunities to lead their peers.

When DVFS opened its doors in September  1987, the total school consisted of approximately 20 students. It has since grown in size and scope, serving nearly 190 students in grades three through 12, coming from counties throughout the Greater Philadelphia Area. Although every student is unique, each has a learning difference such as dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia, ADHD or difficulties with executive function, organization, processing and memory issues.

 “All of the students here have some sort of a diagnosis, and in order to be diagnosed, you have to be someone of average to superior intelligence; most people don’t know that,” Smothers says. “Most educational environments don’t support these students in a  way that truly helps them. Oftentimes it means they get pulled out of history class for language remediation, but then they’re losing the history lesson. When these kids have tutors every day or are getting pulled out of core instruction, they miss out on other parts of their lives that are critically important, like leadership, athletics, theater—types  of things that build on their ability to work with others.

 “Here,” he continues, “our program is aimed at supporting each student’s needs and interests, not as an add-on but as a core part of their education.”

In other words, DVFS educators help students learn how to thrive.

Doing Great Things
Two recent DVFS success stories include  Daniel Burga ’18 and Dylan Renninger ’19. Burga recently won an award through the Comcast Leaders & Achievers Scholarship Program, given to students who have shown a commitment to community service and leadership while maintaining high standards in academic achievement. Renninger, meanwhile,  earned the Widener University and NBC10 High School Leadership Award for his efforts in inspiring his fellow students to bring about positive change.

 “Before coming to DV, I’d say both Danny and Dylan were fly-under-the-radar kinds of kids, and now they both have no qualms about standing up and speaking in front of the entire community,” says Hallie Ciarlone, DVFS’s director of college counseling.  “Both of these awards have been won by several of our students in the past two to three years. I think that shows that our students are able to take risks and do great things, and their achievements go beyond  what you might consider traditional high school activities.”

Burga, who came to DVFS in the sixth grade, leads through his participation in athletics  and student government, as well as through his work with student diversity committees—namely, as co-leader of the school’s Black Student Union and founding co-leader of the school’s LatinX group. Renninger, on the other hand, has given new life to S.A.F.E. (Students  and Faculty for Equality), the school’s gay-straight alliance. Having joined DVFS in the seventh grade, Renninger has found his voice as a proponent of diversity, equality and inclusion.  

 “Our students realize that their learning difference is not going away, but they also realize that it’s not their sole defining factor,” Ciarlone adds. “They still have passions and interests, and we try to help them understand that, by helping them become strong selfadvocates  and by advocating for others, they’re going to find their passion and take advantage of opportunities to be leaders.”

Students such as Burga and Renninger suggest that DVFS fosters an environment where children with learning differences discover the capacity to excel, both as individuals and  as members of a larger community. And when that happens, life changes significantly—not  only for students but for their parents, too.

 “As a parent of a kid who has an LD, parents sometimes worry about how they will make it in the world,” Smothers says. “Here, they see their kids up on stage, doing something incredible that they worked so hard to create,  and they see kids like Danny and Dylan winning scholarships, with publicity and real money. Having your son or daughter find their way with confidence, that’s a life changer.”

19. E. Central Ave.
Paoli, Pa.
DVFS.org | (610) 640-4150


Photography by Jody Robinson


Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, February 2018.