Eagle Hill - Southport: A place of possibilities for 25 years
Published 1:06 am, Friday, April 30, 2010
Massachusetts, 1635. Boston Latin School, the first school in America's original 13 colonies opened its doors to students. It's founders shared a belief with the ancient Greeks that "the only good things are the goods of the soul." A lofty tenet to be sure, but one with a lot of heart.
Now, turn your textbooks ahead 350 years to Southport in 1985. There, in an understated, elegant brick building on Main Street that formerly housed the Pequot Elementary School, Eagle Hill -- Southport welcomed its first students. Founded on a mission to help children with learning disabilities develop a foundation of skills, gain an understanding of their abilities, and prepare for a more traditional program, the school prides itself on both its heart and its soul.
Headmaster Len Tavormina is distinguished in appearance, soft-spoken in demeanor and blessed with a critical talent for a school administrator. He listens when people speak. We meet in a quiet hallway after school has dismissed. He has just come inside from watching his kids pile into one or another of a long line of cars and buses along Main Street. He's smiling. He likes this daily ritual.
In his silent, comfortable office, we talk about the perception and the reality of learning disabilities.
"There are several factors that intersect," he says, "There's the societal thing. We're asking so much more of our kids than we used to. And there's a huge emphasis on language and processing information. At Eagle Hill, our kids can come from families in crisis. The genetic component may be 60--70 percent with a long history of learning problems in the family."
In the past, discussing this with family members could be a touchy area. "I never used to ask these questions," says Tavormina, "but I do now because people are more comfortable talking about it."
Tavormina hosts an open house every two weeks for the parents of prospective students. During these sessions, he makes clear the goals of the school, its philosophy and what it attempts to accomplish for each student.
After one open house, Carol Lavender, the director of admissions, told Tavormina that she had just spoken to a father who apparently lit up after Tavormina said, "If a child is having difficulty here, it's not the child's problem, it's our problem. What we're trying to provide is a successful experience for kids with very complex learning problems. We don't teach curriculum, we teach children how to learn."
It's a tough, unforgiving world and most of the kids arrive at Eagle Hill with their confidence and self-esteem in tatters. They see themselves as not being able to do certain things without knowing why. What the school aims to do is build their confidence by building their foundation of skills and successful experiences. As Tavormina says, "We don't just try to make them feel good about themselves, we try to make them feel good about their accomplishments and the new skills they've acquired."
What are the markers of success? Apparently a big one is a child's willingness to begin to take chances. A kid with elevated self confidence has the attitude of, "Hey, let's try that!" Suddenly they see the world as a place to shine. This is what Tavormina and the school treasure most: real evidence of a self-assured, integrated character.
Asked what big changes have occurred over the last 25 years, Tavormina lists the public's attitude as No. 1, but a close second has been the slow but steady accumulation of a dedicated and talented staff.
Tavormina boasts, "The people here are full of energy, they're very spirited, they enjoy teaching in a place with little or no bureaucracy. In years past, we had some turnover because teachers would get their degree in special education, come to work here for two or three years, and then move to the public schools at a 20 or 30 percent pay raise." That wouldn't do, so Tavormina went to the board members who approved a pay raise to make the school's salaries more competitive. "Now," says Tavormina, "even though there's always a natural turnover we have a wonderful core group."
Today, on the school's 25th anniversary, it can proudly claim to have aided thousands of kids to whom the world looked dark and unforgiving, to attain what once looked impossible: a normal life.
"Every once in a while," says Tavormina, " I'll get a letter from a parent that almost brings me to tears, just a `thank you,' but it's very heartwarming because it's true, we actually change kids lives here."