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Oregon Charter School Considers 'Arrowsmith Program'

(Oregon Public Broadcasting) — Oregon could soon be home to the first public school in the U.S. to offer a unique program out of Canada.

The "Arrowsmith program" leans on neuroscience to address learning disabilities. It's already in some U.S. private schools. The program is on Thursday's agenda for a charter school in Oregon City.

As a child, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young says she struggled to tell time, to read, and to understand simple conversations.

"There wasn't even a term 'learning disabilities'. So I was labeled as 'slow' - that I had a mental block. Basically in grade one, I was told that I would never learn like other children. I struggled with reading, writing, and really, hugely with comprehension," she remembers.

Arrowsmith-Young describes a breakthrough in her 20's, when she discovered two studies: one from Russia on how different parts of the brain function, and a Cal Berkeley study on the brain's ability to change neural pathways. She used that research to design mental exercises.

"So I set out the first exercise for myself to address my problem with comprehension and reasoning, and about four months in, saw huge change in that ability. I could actually listen to conversations as they were unfolding, and understand them, whereas before, that was impossible."

Arrowsmith-Young went to on to design a battery of exercises for 19 different learning disabilities.

Over the last three decades, dozens of schools have used her program, including many U.S. private schools.

But the program is not in Oregon - and it's not in any public school in the country.

That may change soon, in part thanks to a family from Lake Oswego.

Brianna Grady is 12 and severely dyslexic. She and her mom moved to Vancouver, B.C. in 2011, for the Eaton Arrowsmith School.

Before attending the school, Brianna's mother, Kathy, says her daughter struggled to recognize her surroundings. In Vancouver, Brianna wanted to try walking to school on her own.

"Being the overprotective, older mother that I am laughs, I was nervous about that, but she insisted she wanted to try it. So, I talked to her teachers at Eaton Arrowsmith, and they felt that it would be a great exercise - so by the end of the first year, she would walk to and from school, by herself," Kathy says.

Brianna says her ability to retain spatial information came from the school's computer-based exercises, like this one.

"First when you go on the screen, there's going to be one symbol. And you try and remember that symbol. Then you click on the study button. You have to study it, look at it. Then you have to go back to the screen with a whole lot of different symbols that look similar - alike - to that symbol, and have the same shape and twist to it, and still find that have the same one," Brianna explains.

Brianna says her reading has improved, too.

The Gradys might still be at the school in B.C., if not for the cost of keeping homes in two countries. So, they're trying to bring the program to Brianna's school in Oregon City.

Lara Fabricki is the director of Alliance Charter Academy.

The academy's for kids who are home schooled. Fabricki hosted Barbara Arrowsmith-Young earlier this week.

"And every student here has a personalized learning plan - so everyone has their own schedule, they have their own curriculum, whatever works for that student," Fabricki says.

Arrowsmith-Young likes the Academy. "I mean I think this is a perfect home - because it already has that whole concept of individualized education to meet the needs of each child, which is the hallmark of my program."

But Arrowsmith-Young's program has drawn criticism.

Linda Siegel is a special education professor at the University of British Columbia. She studied the program more than ten years ago. And her study found the program offered little improvement.

Siegel concedes that her study had problems, and she's working on a new one. She says the jury is still out on the program.

"There have been no published studies of the effectiveness of the Arrowsmith program. None whatsoever," Seigel says.

Other programs, including one from the University of Oregon, have been studied in greater depth.

Program founder, Arrowsmith-Young, says her program has been thoroughly studied -- though nothing has been published yet. But she says this peer-reviewed research has shown the program to help people a great deal.

Local supporters have a vision beyond Oregon City: they want the program offered widely in public schools. Alliance Academy director Lara Fabricki says that means proving it works at her school.

"We can just run a 10 or 20-kid classroom and see the results ourselves, but we want other people to believe what the results are."

Program supporters are hoping for state funding to both run the classroom and study it. Without outside funding, Alliance would launch a tuition-based classroom - not too different from what other American private schools are doing.


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