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Stories of Celebration

The Vancouver Learning Centre is celebrating its 30th year of service to children, youth and young adults by telling 30 stories of learning success based on the unique interventions individually designed to produce a personal best outcome for young people with learning challenges.

The stories are unique and true. Each will be told in a different format.  The names of the students have been changed to protect their identities, however in each case, the real person has been contacted and has agreed that the story, however told is a true representation of their personal journey.

The first story of Tom began in the first decade of VLC’s existence.  It is written as an excerpt of a forthcoming book called “Against all Odds,” stories of courage and alternative methods of educating learning challenged children.

The stories chosen will vary across ages, gender, ethnicity and circumstance.  What they have in common is that each journey began with the application of a neuropsychological lens to the assessment process.  Then, based on the assumption of the brain’s ability to change and improve, now called Neuroplasticity an intense and targetted program was designed to produce continuous improvement beyond the expected norm.  The specially trained VLC faculty was then assigned to deliver the program.  Each story will have a different way of showing the application of the core principles of VLC practice.

Over three decades, the Vancouver Learning Centre has served almost 1,000 students.  Now, as the mainstream media begins to report on advances in thinking about neuroplasticity, development in imaging technology is beginning to show that intense targetted interventions change and improve brain structures in the targetted areas.  Indeed a new discipline of Educational Neuroscience is now in its early days.  While the applications of these findings are now on the drawing boards in university labs, the 30 stories we will tell will provide evidence of three decades of successful experience based on these principles practiced at the Vancouver Learning Centre.


Tom’s Story

by Geraldine Schwartz

It was 3:30 on a bright October afternoon.  We sat on child size chairs around a small table in a Grade Three classroom to discuss Tom.  The air was thick with the tension of both hope and despair.  The teacher’s voice crackling with emotion fairly hissed his objections into the room.

“What is this boy doing in my class?  He can’t read or spell or do Arithmetic…I can’t understand him when he talks…. He drools continuously on the desk… Nobody wants to play with him…Yesterday when the fire bell rang for drill he bolted out of his seat and ran across the field with the Gym teacher and the Vice Principal after him….”

Mrs. B. sat crushed in her seat, tears burning behind her eyes but bravely in control.

Mr. B., not used to this kind of meeting, sat in stony silence.

The Principal was about to make the usual alternate suggestions of special school… special class…special something – anything – to appease the teacher.

The room was pregnant with despair.  I entered the life crushing silence.

The teacher looked at me expecting the confirmation usually received from psychologists when the test results so dismally confirmed his observation.

Instead I said, beginning quietly, “The test results are mixed.  While it’s true Tom has not flourished so far, considering his disabilities what he can do is rather amazing.  He also has a spirit of willingness to try.  He struggles to do every task without complaint.  Sending him away from the public school at this time will be a life lasting decision that will extinguish any spark we now still see.

“I propose a different course to see what can be done.  Tom will attend the Vancouver Learning Centre three times each week for two hours.  Using his strengths and different methods we will teach him the basics one to one…Reading, Spelling, Writing and Arithmetic.  Once he begins learning we will teach him the curriculum a week ahead of time so he understands his class lessons better.  We will work on speech clarity so you understand him better.  We will phase out the drooling and we are prepared to work with you on the bolting during fire drill.  We are prepared to work long term to see if Tom can adjust to and benefit from a mainstream education.  We ask you to help us.”

Tom’s parents, gathering courage, weigh in, each vowing support and asking that Tom be given a chance.  Both indicate that he is smart…that they believe in him.

The Principal seeks for compromise, suggesting a trial period.  The teacher, outnumbered and unsupported, reluctantly agrees to a trial period. 

The gauntlet has been thrown and we are on……

Mr. B., a longshoreman, enlists his union’s support.  Tom becomes the Stevedores’ project in a nine-year experiment….

Tom, now 14, is 6 years into his program.  He is a high school student in Grade 9 where he is involved in a mixed curriculum of regular and modified courses.  He has learned to read, write and calculate to a competent level.

He is a very hard worker and a respectful and polite, decent school citizen.  His teachers like and respect him.  He continues to be supported by his VLC intensive program after school.  Of course, he remains challenged by profound learning disabilities, and psychological measures continue to reflect this.  On the other hand, academic skills such as reading, writing, spelling and calculating, where he has been extensively tutored, are developed well beyond both early and current expectations.  Progress reviews and school reports show school performance, when combined with extensive one-to-one support teaching and the “week-ahead” program, are much closer to age appropriate skill levels than one would expect based on standardized measures of psychological tests.  The combination of a mediated teaching process suited to his needs and his own special determination to succeed, have kept Tom in the mainstream and en route to entry as a full member of the workforce, against all odds….

The meeting of an international gathering of mental health workers is underway at UBC.  The room is packed with psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers from all over the world.  Tom and his family sit in the front row watching as I present the data on his progress and describe the intervention procedures.  Tom gets up to address the audience to tell his own story of his school experience.  Members of the audience, who have just seen the entry data on his file, are amazed at his articulation and his presence.  One “famous” psychologist from Great Britain asks him:  “And what do you like about Dr. S?” “Oh,” Tom replies, “I like her because she’s very stubborn – like a bulldog….”

Tom, now 18, is attending his high school graduation.  I sit very emotionally witnessing this event with his parents.  The names are called and he along with the others has his proud moment as he shakes the Principal’s hand and receives his diploma.  Later, the Principal, having given out all the scholarships, has something else to say:  “Of all the deserving students who have received awards today, two deserve their diplomas and this award for outstanding achievement beyond all others.”  He then calls two boys to the stage, and one of them is Tom!  His classmates rise to give them a standing ovation.  Tears fall freely from the eyes of the observers and especially from me.  The outstanding courage, determination to succeed, the passion and enthusiasm for life, and saying “Yes” to learning are the qualities that brought us to this moment.  Today these are called emotionally intelligent character traits, the ones that produce success; sometimes-even when cognitive abilities are challenged….

Tom, now in his 20s and a full member of the workforce, has orchestrated a surprise 40th anniversary celebration for his parents.  More than 100 guests fill the room with quiet anticipation.  The honoured guests arrive amid calls of congratulations.  Tom stands up to speak of the gratitude he feels for his parents’ lifelong support.  He uses no notes.  His heartfelt tone and respect are palpable.  The guests are very quiet.  My own heart is full of awe and admiration for the sheer courage and boldness of this journey.



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