It's not often you can point to one thing--one very specific thing--and say, "This. This changed the course of my life."
But that's what The Hill Center did for Sam.
Since birth, Sam has been a bright, engaged kid who loved stories. With overflowing bookshelves and a mom who was an author, the stage was set for him to be an avid reader. My husband Noah and I anticipated the night we'd catch him reading with a flashlight under the covers, well after lights-out.
Kindergarten came and went: Sam wasn't reading. Okay, fine. It was early. Besides, our focus was pulled by Sam's sometimes-debilitating anxiety. We thought: First things first, let's find him a school that can accommodate his emotional needs and the rest will come.
First grade: we found him a great little school. But his anxiety persisted, and he was still not reading. We began homeschooling him midway through the year. Homeschooling was never our plan, but we didn't know what else to do.
Second grade: no progress. He turned eight, had an astonishing vocabulary, but still was not reading.
Every day of homeschooling, we tried to get him to read. I researched all the reading programs designed for reluctant readers. I mean ALL of them. Nothing helped. Books and reading, which had been a source of pleasure and escape and delight, became the source of stress and conflict and tears -- and deep, deep concern.
I was out of my depth as a teacher. Noah and I didn't know what to do. We were lost at sea.
The day I overheard a friend talking about her son's struggle with dyslexia, a light bulb went on.
We had Sam tested. Confirmed. He was diagnosed with all sorts of learning differences -- officially called "learning disabilities," but our experience tells us they're not disabilities -- they are just DIFFERENCES. You name it, he had it: dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalulia, working memory "deficits," and more.
We were ... daunted. Scared. Worried.
Between his anxiety and these learning disabilities/differences ... how would our son learn to read? Do math? Write? Go to a "normal" school? Grow up to be successful? Would he grow up incapable of handling school and work and then be like, forty, and living in our basement forever? Help!
And then, as if fairies floated it down from the sky just for us, we found The Hill Center.
What's The Hill Center? My answer: It's a magical place - think of it as Hogwarts for kids with learning differences.
Hill's technical answer? "The Hill Center is an educational non-profit that serves K-12 students who are struggling academically – especially those with learning differences - through our School Year, Summer, Tutoring, and Teacher Training programs. Our programs are built upon research, individualized instruction, and successful teaching techniques with the goal of helping students reach their full potential."
We went for a tour.
Class size? Four students per class.
Curriculum? Research based, data driven, proven to work over the course of Hill's 35 years.
Teachers and administrators? Smart, kind, well educated, dedicated.
Noah and I were impressed. (We're not easy to impress.)
We enrolled Sam in the summer program: three hours a day of instruction in reading, written language, and math. It was rough, with his anxiety. But he managed to go, which was a minor miracle in itself, and says A LOT about the emotional scaffolding Hill provides its students, right along with the educational instruction.
Sam learned how to read.
That very summer, about a month in, we found him reading "Henry and Mudge." Because he could. Because he wanted to.
Friend, do you think I cried? Uh, yeah. I politely excused myself like, "Cool, cool. No big deal" ... and then wept tears of absolute gratitude and relief.
We enrolled Sam in the school year program - again, three hours a day of reading, written language, and math. The school-year program works closely with teachers in students' "base schools," whether that be a public school, private school, or homeschool. Kids stay active in their base school and come to Hill for half a day of targeted reading, writing, and math instruction. Some kids spend a year at Hill and return to their base schools full time. Some come to Hill for several or many years. (Sam has stayed since third grade; he's in sixth grade now.)
And Hill shares what they know. They don't want other students to miss out, so they do a ton of outreach. They train public school teachers all over North Carolina in their methodology, so ALL students can benefit from Hill's expertise.
Anyhoo. Back to Sam. Fast-forward a few years.
In fifth grade, Sam applied for -- and was selected by the lower school teachers to become -- 2015-2016 Hill Hero. The Hill Hero is a student (one for the morning program, one for afternoon) who exemplifies the "H.E.R.O." values of Hill: Honesty, Excellence, Responsibility, and Open-Mindedness.
Friend, do you think I cried? (Yes. The answer is yes.)
As you can see, Sam beamed like he was lit from within.
It had taken a great deal of courage for Sam to even apply to be Hero; it reflected a giant leap forward in his ongoing mastery of anxiety. His confidence in his ability to learn and his work ethic have helped him in this regard. And to be chosen! What an honor.
This year Sam started middle school at Hill. (Middle school! I know, right?)
His reading comprehension, math, and written-language skills are all above grade level. His vocabulary is through the roof. (His spelling? Continously improving, but will probably always need extra attention.) He's not the world's most voracious reader, although he still devours audiobooks. Reading, for Sam, is more like a process of active decoding than passive absorption. That's okay. When he does read, he is fluent and his comprehension is excellent.
But. And. He is a confident student. He knows how he learns. He knows when and how to ask for help. He works hard. He knows he's smart, and he knows that everyone has their own kind of smart.
He is an advocate for himself and for everyone who learns differently.
And so Sam, Noah and I hope you'll consider contributing to Sam's Hill Mile Challenge.
Sam will be running the Hill Mile to raise money for student financial aid so that more kids have access to our beloved "Hogwarts for Kids with Learning Differences."
Thank you so, so much for your donation.
Blessings on your heads. And may the force be with you.
Xoxo Jen / JJ (and Noah & Sam)