By Richard L. Gaw
It was out of absolute frustration, built up over several years, that led Leo Sticinski to pull his son Stosh from the school he had been attending last year and enter him in the White Clay Learning Center in Toughkenamon. Now, a year later, what had once been a maddening journey to find the right learning environment for Stosh has turned into magic.
For several years, Stosh, who has an auditory processing condition caused by autism, had been mainstreamed in the Wilmington public school system through the Delaware Autism Program. By the time he'd reached the 8th grade, his test scores were remaining stagnant, and at one meeting to discuss Stosh's progress, Leo sat in a room of therapists and pathologists and began to ask questions.
“I asked them, 'What are we doing differently?'” Leo recalled. “I told them, 'You guys are the experts. This is your field of expertise. Please tell me what new things you're going to try. I would get blank stares. Stosh would come home from school and this normally happy boy would sit still for three hours every afternoon and cry, because he couldn't grasp what he was trying to learn in school.”
When he and his wife met with Andrea Shoap, White Clay Learning Center's founder and director, they shared Josh' Stosh’s story, but rather than blank stares, they heard, for the first time, that an individualized educational plan would be developed that was defined by Stosh's needs, not by standards set by an overall system. That was all the Sticinski's needed to hear. They enrolled their son at the school last year, and saw that in one year, Stosh reading level had skyrocketed from a 5th-grade level to an 8th-grade level.
There is an oversized poster of a map of the world that partially obscures a chalkboard in Shoap's office at the White Clay Learning Center, and in many ways, it represents the global thinking behind the school's curriculum – one that has been personally tailored to each individual student since the school's beginning in 1993. Over the course of the last 20 years, the school has earned an outstanding reputation as an alternative approach to learning, with individualized educational plans for each of the 22-25 students who attend the Learning Center each year.
Originally founded to serve as an alternative approach to education, the educational mission of the school has evolved to provide learning opportunities for children with mild to moderate learning differences challenges, which frequently range from Asperger's, ADHD and dyslexia to students on the autism spectrum who, because of their atypical learning styles, have difficulty in school. Each student who comes to White Clay Learning Center learns through an individualized core curriculum that combines reading, vocabulary, math and thematic and integrated learning activities. In addition, White Clay provides a broad range of intervention therapy sessions which can include a gross motor yoga class, pragmatic language sessions and lego therapy sessions. Throughout the year, students' progress is assessed and monitored by Shoap, Learning Center teachers, behavioral consultant specialists, speech therapists and psychologists. Although the youngest students can arrive at the Learning Center at kindergarten age, the majority first attend during the fourth, fifth or sixth grade -- usually after their parents have exhausted all other avenues.
"Each child who comes through our doors has found learning failure elsewhere," Shoap said. "We're often the second or third place for parents who share frustrations. We tell these parents, 'We are not asking your child to fit into our box. We're creating the shape of success around your child.'"
After she received a degree in Education from Penn State, Shoap taught in the Avon Grove and Kennett Consolidated School districts for a few years, as well as spending two years overseas with her husband teaching on an air force base in Crete, Greece. It was during these years, that she became disillusioned by large classroom sizes. She saw that her creative energies were limited. Teaching young people had became too mechanized. Everything was too large. School systems were obsessed with meeting educational standards. The educational system, she saw, was a huge machine that did not connect a teacher with creative ideas on how to engage young people.
Soon after the first of her three children was born in 1992, Shoap spent a year planting the seeds that would become, at first, a support center for home-schooled children. It began at her home in Landenberg, housed in a converted barn on her property. After seven years there, Shoap migrated to the Landenberg Methodist Church, then to the West Grove Presbyterian Church, then to the top floor of the Avon Grove Charter School, and then to a property the Shoaps purchased in West Grove which still serves as a tutoring center. Since 2009, the White Clay Learning Center has been on 250 New Garden Road in Toughkenamon.
During this time, the breadth of the school has expanded, and in 2000, it became an accredited K-12 nonpublic school. Although a small portion of students remain at the Learning Center until they graduate in the 12th grade, the majority end up attending high schools. After graduation, 60 percent of former White Clay Learning Center students attend on to two- and four-year colleges, while others go on to trade schools or directly enter the workforce.
"The bottom line came when my children were younger, and I wanted them to have a different recipe for learning," Shoap said. "I wanted my kids to learn in a more academic, enriched and meaningful environment with a lot of creative energy surrounding them."
In the early years of the Learning Center, Shoap said that she got resistance from those who could not see beyond the finite vision of what an early education should look like, but relied on the support of her husband and a few parents whom she said understood her teaching methods and embraced her teaching philosophy.
"This was a huge leap of faith for these few parents, and especially for my husband who helped me with years of creative financing, meeting endless code specifications of our buildings, and trusting me with our children throughout this long endeavor.” Shoap said. “This huge leap of faith from him, my children and these families, and is a big part of the reason why we’re still here.”
Perhaps the most crucial component of the curriculum at White Clay Learning Center happens when the subject becomes the 'Real World.' Every year, students receive life skills classes, which include shopping in the community, preparing meals and learning how to make financial transactions. Learning about the world also extends far beyond the walls of the school; recently, some students traveled to Costa Rica to volunteer at an orphanage. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, members of the school flew to New Orleans to assist on relief efforts. After the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean devastated the coast of Indonesia, White Clay Learning Center students took up a letter-writing campaign to encourage recipients to contribute to relief locations. Close to home, the school delivers complete Thanksgiving dinners to six area families.
“I’ve always found it so perplexing when I hear parents say that it is the large public school environment that most duplicates the real world for their kids. The 'Real World' setting is five or six people of different backgrounds, ages and creative abilities coming together and working together," Shoap said. "That is the critical element that these children need, and that is what you see here."
As he enters what will be the equivalent of the 10th grade this Fall, Stosh Sticinski will attend White Clay Learning Center four days a week, and work on his studies one day a week from home.
“For Stosh to go through four more years of public school was unthinkable,” Leo said. “After meeting with Andrea, we felt that this school has created a curriculum that thinks outside the box, in an attempt to reach these kids so that they can learn. For me, being able to know that when he sits down to do work, I won't see the frustration on his face is remarkable.
“Stosh tells me, 'Dad, I cant thank you enough for sending me to this new school. I'm so happy here,'” Leo added. “To see your kids being happy in school, what else what can top that?”
Although Shoap is uncertain what the next 20 years will look like at the Learning Center, she is confident in the belief that the school will continue to abide by its mission.
“At the end of the day, this is about creating adults," she said. "We need to do our duty to the individual, and the individual will eventually give back. Whatever label that society may want to put on our students, we provide a learning environment so that they can be a contributing, empowered member of society and make a difference. Our job is to lift them up and help them find their strengths.”