At a recent event for community leaders, teacher Susie Rinaldi’s voice broke as she explained why her parents transferred her from public school to the Chelsea School, a school for children grades 5-12 with language-based learning disabilities.
“In public school, the other kids called me Ree Ree Rinaldi. Ree Ree for retarded.”
At Chelsea, she said, she went from “having a chip on my shoulder about teachers,” to having teachers who “believed me when I said I had studied, and taught me how to do it better.”
Ms. Rinaldi says she is especially grateful for the impact the school had on her family life. The first year at Chelsea, “my parents became allies. I didn’t feel like I had let them down,” she said. She recalled her mother’s kiss on her head after her first parent teacher conference; for the first time in a long while, it wasn’t intended to console her; it was just to say she loved her.
A panel of current students told stories of similar transitions. In public school, they had been silent or aggressive to cover for falling far behind in reading. They arrived at the Chelsea School skeptical, and were taken aback by the warmth of the welcome from peers and teachers, and the rapid progress of their ability to understand written language, guided by one-on-one tutoring and forged with new tools to compliment their learning differences.
Classes at the Chelsea School have no more than eight students. Reading tutorials are as small as three students. This dedicated reading work is in addition to literature and writing classes, in which, for instance, the juniors are reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth this spring, and rewriting it in their own voices.
On a tour following Ms. Rinaldi’s speech, student after student spoke confidently when teachers asked them to explain their work. One was eager to explain the plot of a film he had watched in Spanish; another explained a reading comprehension exercise based on a passage from The Mixed Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler; another demonstrated vocabulary building software; one showed off a short video she had shot.
In the Chelsea School’s technology program, an experienced professional producer teaches video production. An advanced technology program has a game-design track and a cybersecurity and forensics track, in which students can achieve a variety of professional certifications through independent study.
According to head of school Katherine Fedelman, 84 percent of Chelsea’s approximately 70 students are funded through the public school system. Many of the others get financial aid. Tuition is around 37 thousand dollars, with more fees for one-one-one speech, occupational, and counseling services.
The Chelsea School moved in the fall of 2013 from Silver Spring into a new campus on the top floor of the Belcrest Center at Prince George’s Plaza, above LA Fitness and was recently ranked 17th on a list of the best private special needs schools in the country.
Still, the school’s enrollment has dropped since the mid-90s, which Ms. Fedeleman attributes to a push to mainstream students with special needs. Ms. Fedelman said that fewer students are now referred to Chelsea from public schools, and that parents have a heavy burden to demonstrate that their children will be best served in private school.
Ms. Fedelman said she worries that the trend of including learning-disabled students in public school classrooms too often leads to their effective exclusion. Public schools in the area have a 40 percent dropout rate, she said, while the Chelsea School has a perfect graduation rate and most Chelsea students go on to college.
Ms. Rinaldi went to college and then some. As Ms. Rinaldi gained confidence and ability in reading, conversation with her parents at the dinner table turned to literature and current events, instead of the latest crisis at school. Today, she has a Masters in Special Education.
Kit Slack is a local resident and the stay at home mother of three preschool age children. Each of her columns features a different local elementary school.