Learning to Thrive
Parents with children who learn differently find solutions at The Concept School
by Bill Donahue


Forgive Kathleen S.—she prefers not to use her full name—if she gets teary when he speaks about how her youngest son, Ian, nearly “fell through the cracks” of the public education system. For a time, she recalls, the future of his academic development seemed tenuous at best.


“He’s a great kid, but he’s a kid who’s a little different every day,” she says of Ian. “He was doing anything he could to get out of a public school classroom. He would take his time doing the simplest tasks so he would have to do less and less work, or he would be purposely disrespectful just to get out of the room. It was hurting Ian because he was not learning, and the other kids weren’t learning either.”


Fearing their options were running out, Kathleen and her husband, John, took Ian to The Concept School, an independent college-preparatory school in Westtown, where their oldest son, Andrew, was already enrolled in upper school. School administrators suggested a “trial run” to see if Ian and the school would be a good fit for one another. But based on the complexity of Ian’s troubles up to that point—he has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—his parents didn’t get their hopes up.


“I remember John and me saying, ‘What are we going to do if Ian doesn’t get into The Concept School?’” she says. “I told them he was a tough, tough kid. Then I got a call from the school at lunch of the first day, saying he was doing fine there. … Once he had these strong boundaries that the school could give him, I think he sighed with relief—and so did we.”


Ian is now a sixth grader in his second year at The Concept School, and Kathleen says she wishes she “kept a diary of the changes I’ve seen in him and our entire family” since he started going there. He has found his footing in more ways than one, even taking on prominent roles in school theatrical productions.


“Ian never would have been permitted the opportunity to do this someplace else,” Kathleen says. “All the parents come to these performances, and you look around and realize we all understand each other. I don’t care if your child has ADHD or dyslexia, all the parents there have experienced the exact same thing. The parent community at The Concept School is like a pillar; if something extraordinary is needed, it’s there—it’s a caring, positive wonderful place.”


As Kathleen and her family can attest, The Concept School is unique in its approach to education, best serving students who are gifted and talented in many ways but perhaps not suited to more traditional classroom environments. Students tend to excel in this intimate learning community—the student/teacher ratio is 8:1—due to a highly structured environment designed to develop each student’s strengths and interests, while pushing them to grow in other areas. One-hundred percent of students graduate, according to school director Lauren Vangieri, and 95 percent student will still be enrolled in the college of their choice three years after graduating.


“The small size of the school allows us to be a close community with individualized attention, which helps resolve whatever education situation a child finds themselves in,” says Vangieri. “If a student does have a learning difference, because of the class sizes of eight or less, we can work with everybody at their own pace.”


Now celebrating its 40th year, The Concept School traces its beginnings back to the spring of 1972, when a group of parents and educators met and decided to start a school. The founders envisioned a small educational community where learning could be more personalized and where greater interpersonal connections could be forged.


Today The Concept School has approximately 45 students—about the maximum enrollment the school would consider—with tuition that is even more affordable than many area private schools.  The school is state-accredited and licensed, as well as synchronized to the public school curriculum recommended by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. In addition to the basics of math, science, social studies and language arts, classes are available in foreign languages, art and physical education. Furthermore, if a student has an interest in virtually any topic, the school’s staff of 14 will find a way to include it in his or her individualized curriculum.


“We offer classes like archaeology, criminology, ornithology and entomology,” says Vangieri, who came to The Concept School after 17 years in university-level academia. “With archaeology, we go on an actual dig, and with criminology, students can solve a murder and do an autopsy on a fetal pig who is the ‘murder victim’; we call it ‘TCSI.’ If a student expresses an interest in a possible career, we’ll find a way for the student to explore it. We give our all every day and leave here exhausted every Friday. But we still can't wait to come back every Monday.”


Unique, not Different

Rather than have students learn material purely for the sake of passing a test, students “learn how to learn” at The Concept School, according to Vangieri. The school does perform some standardized testing, but its approach allows more flexibility in developing students’ minds and enriching their lives.


“Every year when kids graduate, you hear them say, ‘I learned how to learn here,’” she says. “They see themselves as learning differently, and we’ve shown them how to manage.”


The Concept School places a strong emphasis on theater and the performing arts, as well as developing real-world life skills with an array of computer programs. Another aspect of The Concept School appreciated by students and parents alike: Students have little to no homework. That’s not to say, however, that the school doesn’t push the students to work hard—quite the contrary, according to Vangieri.


“Students put in six and a half hours of concentrated work here every day, so what else do you need to do?” she says. “We’re preparing them for a postsecondary experience, where they’ll go on to have careers and have jobs in this country. For the right kids, this is heaven on earth. They get a chance to be themselves and to be their best selves.”


Like Ian, his brother Andrew also struggled in a traditional classroom, despite the public school district’s best efforts. His mother’s fear with Andrew was that he might drop out of school entirely, yet he has come into his own under the wing of The Concept School.


“Andrew was failing to thrive, almost like he was wilting,” she says. “But when you find a place that takes you as you are, the weight that has been lifted off your shoulders is indescribable. Here was this kid, and we knew he was struggling, but not until he had his first day at The Concept School did we realize just how much he was suffering. As each week, each year has gone by, we’ve seen his attitude get lighter and lighter, almost like he’s able to see the whole world now and it’s not that scary.”


She describes it as “a safety net,” where teachers can push students beyond their comfort zone, “with the knowledge that if the students fail they will drop down to the net and bounce right back up.”


Like other students at The Concept School, both of Kathleen’s children are on their way to realizing their full potential, which she believes is a priceless gift they would have received nowhere else.


“There is a solution, and you know what you’re paying for here: building pride and confidence, not supporting a soccer team,” she says. “If I had any advice for other parents, it would be to go visit the school, let your child come here and see how it goes. Once you see your child who wouldn’t get to a traditional middle school, it changes everything. For us, we’re so grateful that we found a way.”


The Concept School

1120 E. Street Road | Westtown, PA 19395 | 610-399-1135