Q&A with… Benjamin Powers, Eagle Hill Southport School headmaster
FAIRFIELD — After adding a neighboring street-front red brick building to the school’s campus, Eagle Hill Southport School Headmaster Benjamin Powers envisions space for students’ creativity to flourish and to spread teaching expertise and aid beyond the school’s halls.
Eagle Hill Southport School purchased the former People’s United Bank building at 226/228 Main St. April 17. The 32-year-old private school — made up of small classrooms ranging from two to 10 students in a beige building by the Southport harbor at 214 Main St. — educates students with dyslexia and ADHD. It enrolls about 110 students, kindergarten through eighth grade.
Powers, 39, became headmaster in the summer of 2012, after years of teaching at a school for students with dyslexia in New York where he worked his way up to its headmaster. That school, The Kildonan School, is where he first began teaching after graduating from La Salle University, a brief stint in finance and searching for his next step. During that time, he drove his then-11-year-old sister to school and noticed a substitute teaching opening.
“I started substitute teaching on a Wednesday,” he recalled, “and that Friday I was like, this is what I want to do.”
Born in Garrison, N.Y., Powers now resides in Fairfield with his wife, who he met his first day teaching at Kildonan, and four children. After five years in town, the family is soon moving to Madison.
Powers chose to succeed Eagle Hill’s previous headmaster of 28 years because he wanted to focus on younger students — Kildonan went up to 12th grade — and believed it could become a platform for the broader learning differences community. With the current expansion, the school will not alter its enrollment.
Q: Tell me about the purchase of the bank building. What do you think that will mean for Eagle Hill?
A: We’re really trying to marry three things together.
We have an incredible connection with the research community, and we are really also trying to bring in the advocacy piece... the actual teacher-training piece.
As part of the advocacy piece, we believe the kids that we have in this building — whether they’re dyslexic or ADHD…The natural selection process hasn’t gotten rid of dyslexic and ADHD kids, so we believe that this cerebral diversity that exists in these kids exists for a reason.
For most of the history of dyslexia and ADHD, which is pretty recent because reading is a fairly new invention, most people have focused on the deficit side of these kids — that they can’t read or that they’re distractable or that they can’t sit through class.
And our belief is, yes, we need to help them with those things in the best-researched approach, but we also need to leverage the other side of their jagged profile — the arts, creativity. We see a number of dyslexic entrepreneurs, architects, musicians, artists, designers, all these great things, storytellers...The opportunity with that building is to really build programming around leveraging those strengths, and second to that we are going to have, as part of that building, part of the space as dedicated art and music space.
Q: Can you tell me the ways you currently work with the broader community and ways you want to in the future?
A: The first initiative we started about three years ago was the sense of doing free community lectures.
We were really fortunate last year to get a grant from the Hearst Family Foundation, who underwrote two years of these free community lectures for us, and we get in top researchers like Dr. Maryanne Wolf, who wrote probably the best book on the reading brain called “Proust and the Squid,” empowerment people who’ve come in — these are adults with dyslexia, and then we’ve also gotten people in from the practitioner side, like Dr. Tim Heitzman or Dr. Jerome Schultz, who can come in and help translate how do you take this knowledge into the classroom.
These are free. They’re open to the community.
We get people from Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut. We get teachers; we get parents.
Q: How will these creative spaces for students in the new building be a change from what you do now?
A: Right now we do have an art space in this building and we started a music program two years ago as the first real music program at the school.
What this space will do is allow us to increase significantly the amount of art our kids get, so we are going to move to a whole new schedule. Kids are going to have multiple art classes during the week. They’ll have music classes during the week...We’re going to have an epoxy floor in there so kids can make a mess and they can experiment with things.
When you go up onto the second floor of that building where the art space is going to be, it’ll be the most beautiful spot within both buildings — there’s natural light, you can see the water.
Giving the best space to the kids and really making a declarative statement about how important the arts are in the curriculum: that the arts are just as important as math and reading and science and social studies.
Q: I’ve heard about the “Powers Punchline,” where a student is selected to tell a joke at the end of the all-school morning meeting each day. Can you tell me about that?
A: I know we all believe the most important thing we have to do with these kids is rebuild trust with them. On some level, trust has been broken with most of the kids who have had educational experiences before coming here and you see that from the very first moment the kids walk in with the cars outside.
The kids are excited to come to school here, and part of that is humor. We really believe in the power of humor and laughter and having fun.
I like kind of corny jokes. I think they’re silly and funny and depending on the kids they an be an eye-roll in a funny way or laughter depending on the kid. At the beginning of the year this year, I started telling jokes for some reason, and then kids wanted to tell jokes.
For our kids, one of the huge deficits for them is that they’re often, in a more mainstream school environment, one of the last kids that are put out in front of everybody else. They’re the last kids to be asked to be leaders. They’re the last kids to be given public speaking opportunities. Or maybe they don’t have the confidence to do that.
So one of the huge things about this “Powers Punchline” is getting kids up from age five to age 15 who take a risk to share something in front of 150 people. Part of it’s a public speaking opportunity; part of it is building that self-confidence; part of it is just really starting the day on a humorous note and being on that level that we’re all here with everybody, we’re all here to have fun.
We have to do heavy lifting during the day academically but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun experience.