Molding Minds and Making a Difference
Writer / Janelle Morrison
I recently visited the Midwest Academy in Carmel, to learn about what the school provides students with learning style differences and what their students do for their “Community Week”. I met with the Head of School, Kevin Gailey, and Bridget Lueken, director of student services and teacher for Midwest Academy, who gave me a tour of the facility that accommodates students in grades four-12.
Whether a student enters Midwest with a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD, high-functioning autism (HFA), generalized anxiety, or an undefined learning disability, language development is frequently a primary concern or is directly affected by a primary diagnosis. Language development is considered at the root of planning all lessons, assignments, projects and assessments designed by teachers.
Established 20 years ago, Midwest Academy, a 501c3, is accredited by ISACS, the Independent Schools Association of the Central States. ISACS accredits more than 250 independent schools in 13 states. The ISACS board consists of teachers, administrators and trustees who work with schools to create strong learning communities focused upon academic achievement and social responsibility. Midwest offers a child-centered education founded in constructivism which utilizes highly intentional methods of direct instruction. By employing a combination of these two approaches to learning, they engage in education as a process, balancing the two main objectives – remediation of deficiencies and constant extension of current skill levels. The school can accomplish these goals by evaluating students when they first enroll. Midwest determines if gaps in foundational knowledge exist and remediate resulting deficiencies when necessary. Utilizing facts, figures and “right” answers in this manner helps children build the foundation they have been missing for several years, causing education to become overwhelming and even depressing. At the time of admission, the school also attempts to discern if a need to accelerate instruction exists and create academic plans for accommodation accordingly.
The academy’s average class size is approximately 10-12 students per class and this year’s enrollment is at 90 students. The majority of students will complete a minimum of 52 credits, about six an a half per semester. Midwest offers individualized education plans so that they figure out what each student needs in order to graduate. They have comprehensive four and five year graduation plans, depending on the student’s specific needs and goals. Some of their students gain college credits while they are attending Midwest through programs and partnerships with Ivy Tech or Brigham Young University.
Midwest operates on an annual fund and hosts an annual gala as a fundraiser. The school has established an endowment that benefits scholarships and general operating and building funds. They have doubled the amount of financial aid that they give out in the last two years with approximately 30 percent of their families receiving aid. They charge $12,000 less than the average school for kids with a need for a different learning style in the Midwest region.
During our tour, I asked Gailey what makes their academy different from other private learning institutions and what feedback he had received from parents of students attending Midwest Academy.
“We hear a lot ‘you’ve changed my child’s life,’” Gailey said. “We’ve heard ‘you’ve saved my child’s life’ because their child was going from anxiety to depression prior to coming to Midwest. We once had a child come here who was told by his former 10th grade teacher that he would never work anywhere but a fast-food restaurant. This student came to school here for three years and afterwards was admitted to a college in Indiana and was awarded a $65,000 scholarship.”
Gailey came on board the Midwest staff five years ago as the dean of the high school and became head of the school two years ago.
“Our mission is to serve a population of students who are either on the spectrum, who have attention issues, language processing issues or anxiety, which is either a primary issue or a result of the other three aforementioned,” Gailey explained. “We try to make sure that we are admitting kids that we can serve. Most of our students have come from communities where they feel that they are outliers and are often pushed to the edges of their school communities. They don’t feel like they belong and we make sure that have enough commonalities so that they don’t feel that way here at our school. We are a progressive school. We have always been a school that talks about differentiating and we talk about what the pedagogy that is underneath that concept and that is constructivism. We discuss how to construct concepts as the students learn, based on their experiences. Progressivism came out of that, which is where we look at a whole child, focus on concepts and comparing concepts. We are not focused on high-stakes testing and we are not driven by data but we are data informed. Our job, as educators, is to help young people find a sense of where they connect, matter and develop expertise in the world. The progressive philosophy, combined with the research and brain development studies of the last 30 years, enables us to figure out how to teach each individual student.”
Midwest offers a rolling list of extracurricular activities: clubs, trips, social events, teams, etc. designed to augment the curriculum. The offerings vary annually based upon staff offerings, student interests and timing of events relative to education. The students recently spent three school days completing community service projects. Lueken, along with other staff members, find ways of tying things together so that their students feel empowered by helping others in their community. The students spent time volunteering at facilities such as the Good Samaritan Network, Hollis Adams Foundation, Gleaner’s Food Bank, Grace CC Food Pantry and other community-based organizations.
Lueken shared with me her thoughts on what it means for her as a teacher and administrator at Midwest. “I teach high school government in addition to my role as the director of student services,” Lueken said. “Right now, my students are working on U.S. government, just like any high school senior has to take as part of their curriculum. Rather than focusing on the dates and the times, we are letting the students dig into the words of where the democracy started and as they are digging they are asking questions, some of which I don’t know the answer to. As teachers, being life-long learners, being able to stand up in front of a classroom and say ‘I don’t know, lets look into that together’, is not easy to do, but that is really where we need to be with our students. I want them to have a real understanding of what it means to be an American citizen. I want to teach them how to access their government beyond just memorizing the important dates. I want to teach them what their rights and responsibilities are.
“As a group, we discuss the social issues that are the subject of many debates in and outside of our local, state and federal governments right now. We muddle through the issues, where the students stand individually and how they can help and be part of the solutions. Another hallmark of progressivism is that we try to develop in our students a sense of social justice. It is a two-fold experience when they are out volunteering because all volunteer experience is also work experience. Getting our students out into the community and being successful at learning a variety of skills encourages them to engage more and builds their confidence, which helps them to achieve their goals. Personally, I want to make sure that all of the supports are there in place for them to be able to move forward successfully and be a part of their community.”
For more information about Midwest Academy or to find out more about the academy’s endowment and gala fundraiser, please visit their website at mymidwestacademy.org.