The Shelton School: Montessori for the Learning-Different
For students who grapple with learning differences, the Shelton School in Dallas, Texas is the largest private institution in the world. It has nearly 900 students but boasts a teacher-student ratio of just one to six, making clear its dedicated commitment to children’s individuality and distinct learning styles. Among Shelton’s staff members, the Montessori method is especially prized as a way to help students reach their full potential.
“It is unique and irreplaceable for me,” says Dr. Joyce Pickering, Shelton’s executive director emeritus and current vice president of the American Montessori Society. “Montessori allows me to reach children in a way that helps them be successful, protects their self-concept, and prepares them for the future.”
Shelton is well equipped to do just that. Founded in 1976 by Dr. June Ford Shelton along with a small group of parents, the Shelton School had only 26 students when it began. Since then, it has grown by nearly 10 percent each year, and the school now has more than 200 staff members to serve its students.
Although it has lots in common with other Montessori schools, Shelton faces some unique challenges. “[We] must work intensely to individualize the programs to each child’s needs,” says Dr. Pickering. The school deals exclusively with students who are classified as “learning-different,” meaning that they meet or exceed intelligence levels of other kids but may struggle with challenges including dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, speech difficulties, or language disorders.
Shelton’s staff is a tight-knit group that relies on one another to emphasize positivity, create a nurturing environment, and place students’ needs first. “The staff works in a very collaborative way to share ideas and strategies to unlock the learning abilities of each child,” notes Dr. Pickering. “The staff also works to highlight each talent that the student has, so that the student and his parents will appreciate the strengths and not just focus on the weaknesses.”
To help parents and staff pinpoint the nature of learning difficulties and productively address them, Shelton has an on-site Evaluation Center. Staff members at the center assess any students who need attention and produce detailed learning, behavioral, and psychological profiles from which to move forward. The school’s Speech Clinic is also open to any students who struggle with language- and speech-related difficulties or social communication skills.
Dr. Pickering also champions Shelton’s Outreach Center, which aids teachers and Montessori professionals worldwide in setting up their own elementary and early-childhood resources and institutions for learning-different children. The Outreach Center offers training, structured language courses, and educational presentations throughout the U.S. and in overseas locations including Europe, Canada, Brazil, China, and Australia. “My dream is that Shelton’s endowment will grow to help the school continue to flourish and [enable] Outreach to set up Shelton replications around the U.S. and the world,” says Dr. Pickering.
One implication of Shelton’s Outreach Center is that more Montessori schools and teachers could benefit from in-depth knowledge and training related to speech, learning, and communication disorders. Dr. Pickering advises heads of schools of administrators who work with the Montessori method to “continue to learn about children who learn differently so that they will have the knowledge they need to help each child in the ways they learn best.”
In keeping up with that mission, Shelton has employed a new head of school, Suzanne Stell. Stell’s Montessori training began nearly three decades ago in Dallas at Dean Learning Center, where she received instruction from a Montessorian co-worker and then employed it in her own classrooms. Stell agrees that education and training are essential for schools that cater to learning-different students, but she also stresses how important it is to find the right people to put in classrooms. “Well-prepared teachers can take a child at any stage of learning and gently guide the child to reach his potential,” she says. “The right teacher is one who can ‘follow the child’ by providing what he needs, when he needs it, in the way he needs it. Not every teacher will be able to understand and incorporate this concept, no matter the education or training.”
Stell names improving students’ confidence as a top priority as she eases into her role at Shelton. “Many students have lost their self-esteem and love of learning by the time they get to us,” she says. “We must help them by providing a learning environment that they can succeed in. Young children may respond in a matter of weeks, [but] for adolescents who come to use for the first time, confidence-building can take a lot longer.”
With such a rich history and reputation behind it, the Shelton School may seem limited in how it can continue to improve, but Stell doesn’t see it that way. “Shelton has always been ahead of the mainstream when it comes to educating children with learning differences,” she says. “Obviously, technology will play a big part in educating our students over the next ten years. More important, however, is employing teachers who can fit into our ‘Shelton way.’ Our staff is the most important reason we have seen such success with students in the past, [and] they will continue to be our most significant asset in the future.”