School in Spring Branch Shapes Kids From Inside Out

April is Autism Awareness Month. Around one in 100 children has a disorder in the autism spectrum and for these kids, learning in a traditional school environment is challenging. Wendy Siegle recently made a trip out to a northwest Houston neighborhood, where there’s an innovative school that caters to students with neurological differences. It’s the latest installment of the KUHF NewsLab’s series, “Exploring Houston.”

Science & Environmental Teacher Richard Klein teaching students how to work on projects together“What I want ya’ll to do is… I’m going to get this started…”

(Sound of sawing)

It’s a bright and sunny day in the northwest neighborhood of Spring Branch and teacher Richard Klein is showing his students how to saw a piece of timber that will ultimately be used in the construction of a garden shed.

“So while you’re holding, that makes it easier for me to saw….”

Klein works at The Monarch School, a therapeutic school for students with neurological differences aged three to 25. The majority of Monarch’s 105 students have been diagnosed with an Autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger syndrome. People with Asperger’s are usually high functioning, but often have impaired social, communication, and coordination skills. Monarch also accommodates students with Bipolar disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, and others. Practical exercises, like Klein’s sawing lesson, help students learn to work together and to feel comfortable around others.

“I was not dumb, I was intelligent, but I couldn’t get my thoughts or my knowledge from my head to my hands.”

Sixteen year old Sam has been a student at Monarch for two years. Sam has Asperger syndrome, so learning in a tradition school environment was tough for him. He says he struggled both academically and socially because his previous school wasn’t equipped to deal with students with neurological differences. But Sam says that all changed when he went to Monarch. Now he is progressing rapidly. Monarch founder Marty Webb says the school is committed to shaping lives from the inside out.

“We believe that that tagline and that metaphor of what happens to the caterpillar and the chrysalis is so perfect for what indeed happens to our kids.”

back field of Monarch buildingThe school sits on over ten and a half acres of open field in Spring Branch. The property was essentially a gift from a local Houston company that leased the space to the school for 90 years, at just 25 bucks a year. Monarch is one of just a handful of schools in the Houston area that integrates learning with psychological treatment. Unlike traditional schools, it tailors the curriculum according to their students’ ability. So instead of being grouped by grade level, they’re grouped by where they are developmentally. For most children, social and emotional learning happens implicitly, but Webb says that kids with neurological differences usually need explicit instruction.

“If your child is developing what we call neuro-typically, if their neurology, their cognition is developing in a normal progression, you don’t have to be nearly as deliberate about teaching. For example, how do you make a friend? Right? Kids make friends…”

But kids with disorders like Autism, she says, find it hard to develop friendships because they have difficulty connecting with others and forming deeper relationships.

“That’s our job is to breakdown, what are those relationship skills? How can you create a series of targets that are developmentally sequenced so that a child can learn one skill and then move to the next and then move to the next?”

students at monarch schoolThis “breaking things down” method is applied throughout the curriculum. Back with Sam, he says the school and its therapeutic strategies have significantly improved his quality of life.

“Everyday I look forward to the Monarch School as a guarantee for having fun, being able to get along with friends, be academically in charge.”

But Monarch, with its faculty to student ratio of just 2.5 to 1, isn’t cheap. Tuition fees cost upwards of $20,000, though it does offer financial aid. Still, despite the price-tag, families have flocked to this Spring Branch school from all over Houston, the country, and the world in hopes of giving their kids a more appropriate learning environment.

From the KUHF NewsLab, I’m Wendy Siegle.