The Key School: Celebrating 25 Years

Perspective: you’re a new employee at Carolina Day School, a staff member who has never taught children before. You breezed through school as a bright, obedient student with no discernible learning differences, and you’ve navigated your adult career without too many internal or external obstacles. You enter a room with your cohort of new faculty and staff hires and sit at a child’s desk as you wait to be led through what you’re assuming is a routine training module. It will turn out to be anything but routine.

Other adults chatter and shuffle their orientation materials around you. Stations are set up around the room with various activities, and a nervous excitement buzzes through the air as the module begins. You’re divided into three groups and instructed to complete seemingly simple tasks—tasks from your childhood classroom where you excelled easily. But this time, something is different. While trying to listen and copy down a lecture, other background noises and voices rise above your teacher’s words. Concentrating becomes difficult, and you have to strain to make out the information you need to hear. By the time this station is finished, you’re exhausted from stretching your senses, but you still have two more stations to complete.

During the reading aloud station, words you were once familiar with are written in strange symbols that carry no meaning. You have a hard time remembering which symbols correlate to which letters, and when you’re called on to read your portion, you stumble through as if you are a kindergartener learning to read. The teacher tells you to read faster, so you don’t make the rest of the class late for recess, a tactic which shames you into silence. At the math station, you must draw shapes and numbers without looking at your pencil or paper directly. You can only look at a mirror placed in front of you. As a result, your shapes and numbers sprawl wildly across the page, breaking from the carefully printed lines of the wide-ruled paper. You feel soundly defeated.

You’ve just been through dyslexia-simulation training, meant to show neurotypical people, as much as is possible, what it’s like to learn with dyslexia in an environment unsuited for dyslexic needs. It’s a highly affecting training put on by faculty members at Carolina Day’s Key School, now celebrating its 25th year in existence. The training is offered to new CDS employees, Key School parents, and prospective Key School parents, and it’s central to the Key School’s mission, which began in 1997 when Principal Dr. Diane Milner was hired to spearhead an entirely new program.

CDS teachers could see how bright their students were, even as they faltered and fell behind in critical math, reading, and comprehension skills. But instead of shepherding those students to other schools or letting them fall behind, school administrators sought out experts at the university level to help CDS understand what its most academically vulnerable students needed. When the late philanthropist Adelaide Key, a former member of Western Carolina University’s Board of Trustees, heard about CDS’s new endeavor, she jumped to fund the venture. When the school finally opened its doors in 1998, Dr. Milner made sure teachers in the Lower School, not just the Key School, were trained to identify dyslexic traits in young children, so that the school community could recognize students who learned differently and what they needed in order to succeed.

“It’s through their own success that they really grow their confidence,” Milner explains.

Now, the Key Learning Center trains teachers from all over the country, expanding the Key School’s reach and the spread of the Orton-Gillingham method that unlocks the potential of so many young, dyslexic minds. Several Key School teachers are parents of dyslexic children who sought out Carolina Day and the Key Learning Center in order to help keep their kids from falling behind.

“Sometimes we have to go back to some of those building blocks of the Jenga tower to be sure they’re really strong,” Milner says. “Many times our students have so much information in their head, it isn’t filed correctly, they can’t retrieve it efficiently to use it. So we go back and solidify the foundational pieces. And our children, you know, they have that ability to rise to the top.”

And rise to the top they do. Today, some Key School graduates are teachers themselves. Some work for the U.S. Department of Education. Some are accepted to top colleges and universities across the nation. And with the education they received at the Key School, they’re not just surviving, they’re thriving. The Key School has been changing lives for the past 25 years, and it will continue to change lives for years to come.

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