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Silver Lining in a Crisis

 

COVID-19 drove us to look at things differently; after accepting that e-learning would be a necessary component to instruction in the fall.  Our staff was tasked with a limited amount of time to learn, become proficient, and embrace new technology.  As a result, Dallas Academy now reaps the benefits of leaning into that technology.  In a school that specializes in teaching students with learning differences, these students have shown resilience in their approach to learning. 

Much like the students they lead, Dallas Academy teachers also stepped up to face the challenge and embraced the opportunity to find a new and exciting way to teach.  Teachers started the 2020-2021 school year with an intense week of Microsoft training; learning that empowered them to shift seamlessly between live and virtual instruction during the first semester. Dr. Mandi Skerbetz, Assistant Head of School, quickly seized the opportunity to start a partnership with the Microsoft Training Team.  “Dr. Skerbetz and the Dallas Academy team immediately saw the potential in taking a holistic training approach with both students and educators. The fact that they set aside a dedicated week for Microsoft training sent a clear message to all involved that this was important learning and created a high level of engagement with Microsoft Store’s training” says Angela Garrity, SMB/EDU Sales for Microsoft. 

This rise in student engagement can be attributed in large part to the ease in communication using the Microsoft tools.  Teachers have seen success in their students.  In a school where there is an increased focus on creating a plan to target individual student needs, the Microsoft Accessibility tools and dashboard assist with specific organizational skills like Executive Functioning.  Much like the world of social media, there are immediate notifications back and forth between students and teachers in the Microsoft Teams dashboard.  Through the Microsoft Teams chat and call features there is immediate access between teacher and student just as there is in their social media post feeds.  Each class has its own Team which houses everything for the class including notes and assignments, allowing for practice with organization.  The Accessibility tools allow teachers to provide support and accommodations to students, in order to reduce barriers to success.

Being that one of the hallmarks of our school is our tight knit community, the school-wide access to the same technology has given Dallas Academy the ability to retain this identity by hosting fun community-wide events. Our Performing Arts Improv night, annual Pumpkin Chunkin’, and other traditional events were on the verge of being cancelled until we shifted gears and used our technology to ultimately, stay connected, virtually. 

As we look ahead to the uncertain future, we know that the future is bright for students at Dallas Academy.  “Our students are prepared beyond the classroom and our students are now armed with a platform currently used in higher level education and the workforce”, Dr. Skerbetz says with much hope.  “Dallas Academy is proud to become the first DFW school for students with learning differences to partner with Microsoft and have 100% of its staff become Microsoft Innovation Education Certified.”   

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by Dr. Mandi Davis Skerbetz

As a society we are working to pivot and develop new routines due to the impact of COVID-19. The world of education, which historically is resistant to change, has been forced to evolve. Educators have been in a race against time to develop new learning environments and platforms that allow instruction to take place, while ensuring the safety of students and staff remains the top priority. In this race against time and limited research and best practices available, educators have fallen into the old practice of planning for the average student; students that do not fit that profile are often an afterthought.

Students with learning differences are a subgroup of students that has found this ever-changing state of education and the “new” normal difficult to navigate. The amount of cognitive shifting that is necessary to find success within a hybrid, virtual, or e-learning landscape is taxing for all students, let alone students that have weaknesses with processing, working memory, and executive functioning skills. It is more important now than ever for families and educators to work together to support students with learning differences.

Families and educators should work together to determine strategies, specifically, accommodations and modifications that will best support their student within a virtual setting. When considering supports for students with learning differences, accommodations and modifications are typically organized into four categories: presentation, response, environment, and timing/scheduling. The following are accommodations and modifications that families and educators should consider when developing plans to support students in a hybrid, virtual or e-learning environment.

Presentation Accommodations and Modifications in a Virtual Setting:

  • Use audio recordings or text-to speech programs
  • Increase the font size of digitally presented text
  • Increase the spacing/amount of text presented digitally
  • Include visual representations and cues (clipart, memes, gifs) with written text
  • Include verbal summaries and cues (recorded) with written text
  • Chunk information presented into discrete pieces of information
  • Limit note taking during digital lessons, provide notes before the lesson or transcript after the lesson
  • Provide digital graphic organizers, skeleton notes, advanced organizers, anchor charts, and information keys
  • Provide videos of instruction for students to return to as needed
  • Provide verbal cues (sounds and audio recordings) embedded in lectures and digitally presented text
  • Provide all instructions for assignments in concise, written format; paired with a video explanation
  • Determine a consistent way digital information will be organized across teachers and courses

Response Accommodations and Modifications in a Virtual Setting:

  • Provide students choice on how they submit responses and assignments:
    • Video or audio recordings of themselves providing answers (LoomFlipgrid, etc…)
    • Pictures of handwritten work
    • Typed responses (use of Text to Speech programs as needed)
  • Provide students with online calculators or assistive technology tools specific to math
  • Provide students manipulatives
    • Tangible manipulatives sent home by the teacher
    • Printable manipulatives
    • Virtual manipulatives
  • Provide students increased wait time, cues, and alternatives (writing, circling, pointing, gestures) when asked to speak or present in front of online class
  • Provide digital graphic organizers, sentence starters, or templates for writing activities
  • Include the use of Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation assistive technology supports

Environment Accommodations and Modifications in a Virtual Setting:

  • Provide a designated space for e-learning to take place, free from auditory and visual distractions
  • Provide sensory and fidget items to students while they are engaged in digital instruction
  • Allow the use of headphones or earbuds
  • Provide small group or one-on-one learning using breakout rooms or individual on-line conferences

Timing/Scheduling Accommodations and Modifications in a Virtual Setting:

  • Embed frequent guided and unguided brain breaks
  • Embed physical/kinesthetic instruction and movement
  • Increase the amount of time provided to complete a task
  • Allow extended time beyond what would typically be allowed during in-person instruction
  • Chunk larger assignments into smaller tasks and provide individual due dates over several days, instead of one due date for all the smaller tasks
  • Provide a written outline of due dates no more than one week at a time
  • Embed visual timers into online instruction
  • Provide visual timers for breaks
  • Provide consistent visual schedule or outline for each day or class period

Even though we, as special educators, are in unchartered territories it is important to remember that we must support students on an individual basis. There should never be a one size fits all approach to education regardless of learning environment. When designing a plan to support your child during online learning first consider individual strengths and then select accommodations and modifications listed above that will help to support specific areas of weakness.

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The Dallas Academy Varsity Football team was not even sure they would have a season this year.  With Covid-19 numbers steadily rising and surging throughout the summer the outlook of being able to start football in August did not seem like a possibility.  School officials took every precaution they could to try and prepare for the chance that school and sports would be able to open on schedule.  As the summer waned on, the team received the news that Dallas County would allow schools to start practice on September 8th.  While the other private schools in the league were able to start in early August, the Bulldogs were excited that they would at least be able to play this year. 

While playing the games was important to the players, the life lessons they learn through athletics is the greater reward.  At Dallas Academy, the athletic program teaches their players to win with class and lose with dignity.  They learn how to overcome adversity and never give up no matter what the odds are.  They are taught how to handle success and the traps that success can bring.  The athletic program focuses on a student-centered coaching philosophy which gives the players team-based goals over individual goals that helps to instill teamwork and selflessness to achieve a goal.  The players learn how to be leaders and develop important social skills.  With the no-cut policy that the team implores, every student in the school is given the opportunity to learn these valuable lessons.

As September 8th arrived, the football team gathered to try and prepare for the upcoming season.  After only three weeks of practice, the team prepared for their first game against undefeated Harvest Christian from Lantana, a team that already played three games.  The Bulldogs fought hard in the back-and–forth game but fell short 56-42.  The following week found the Bulldogs pitted against another undefeated opponent in perennial state power, Wylie Prep.  The team faced some early adversity and were never able to find their footing falling 52-0 and staring at an 0-2 record for the season.  The team was now in a position where their once hopeful season was in danger of ending in another missed playoff appearance.  In their third game, the Bulldogs found their focus and their footing dominating both sides of the ball for a 73-26 win over Decatur Victory Christian to put themselves in position to clinch a playoff berth with another victory.  In their next game, the Bulldogs got off to a hot start and then were able to overcome sloppy play in the second half to pull out a 58-31 victory over Mesquite Founders Classical.  The victory evened their record at 2-2 and clinched their first playoff berth in four seasons.

The Bulldogs had one more regular season game to try and end the season with a winning record for the first time in five seasons.  Their opponent for this big homecoming game was Arlington St. Paul’s, a school that had won multiple state champions over the previous five seasons.  After a score on their first drive, the Bulldogs gave up the lead to St. Paul’s 8-6 early in the first.  The team was not to be denied this final victory as they stepped up their play on offense, led by a season high 454 yards rushing, and on defense, shutting out St. Paul’s in the second half and forcing 3 turnovers, leading to the big 61-14 victory and a winning season.

The football team’s journey for the year is not over yet.  With the victory, the Dallas Academy Bulldog Football team clinched a first-round bye and a trip to the state semifinals.  Their upcoming opponent is the undefeated defending state champs from Westlake Academy.  While the Bulldogs know they have a formidable opponent, they believe the lessons they have learned about hard-work, dedication, and selflessness will place them in the best chance to be successful in the game and in life.

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Director of Music Therapy & Performing Arts, Ms. Molly Phillips Grogan, Music Therapist-BC, jumped at the chance to train interns when she was approached by Dr. Daniel Tague, MT-BC Assistant Professor and Chair of Music Therapy at SMU three years ago.  Dr. Tague had observed the unique and effective therapeutic approach to learning at Dallas Academy and was enthusiastic about giving his senior students an opportunity to be a part of the one year (approximately 1200 hours) of internship.  

As a prerequisite, Ms. Grogan was required to complete a Music Therapy Intern Supervisory course to prepare for her new SMU Music Therapy Supervisor role.  She was delighted “to know that she is making a difference in the shaping of these young professionals, while also being aware of how much skilled help and service Dallas Academy students gain from the SMU interns.” 

Dallas Academy is grateful to be entrusted with SMU Music Therapy Interns as a wonderful new addition to our campus.   Our relationship with Southern Methodist University has proven to be a win-win situation for both parties.   While the SMU intern is provided the long-term on-site training experience needed before graduation, even more Dallas Academy students are able to participate in enriching development because of the added skilled assistance.   Since this program has come to our campus, dozens of students have been given extra therapeutic attention and broader learning from these highly skilled student professionals from SMU.       

These bright and talented SMU students come to Dallas Academy after completing a rigorous academic curriculum, in addition to a practicum rotation in a variety of therapeutic settings. Our current SMU MT Intern, Ali Esparza, joins us as the third SMU intern Ms. Molly Grogan has supervised.   Ms. Esparza comes to us with practicum experience in settings of memory care, adult psychiatric care, one-on-developmental intervention, and from practicum experience with young cancer patients at Cook Children's Hospital. 

This year, Ms. Esparza will spend her internship in three phases:  observation, co-leading, and leading groups and classes, as well as in one-on-one with individual music therapy interventions via piano, guitar, voice, soprano recorder, ukulele and a variety of rhythm instruments.   Becoming familiar with the needs of each individual, Ali will develop her skills at writing goals & objectives for students as well as creating meaningful and effective interventions to help our students become the best versions of themselves through Music Therapy & Performing Arts.    

Ms. Esparza will be using music as a therapeutic tool to help students develop in basic learning skills such as:  memory, sequencing, organization, reading, verbal and non-verbal communication, social skills, self-awareness and self-expression, increasing confidence through risk-taking, and many other important goals.    Scientific studies tell us that music is "fertilizer for the brain" and children who engage in music develop better.  We are all reminded that music & performing arts are educational and therapeutic and lives are changed before our very eyes! 

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BRINGING TAKE FLIGHT HOME

Just as students are getting used to a new routine for online learning, educators are also adjusting to an unfamiliar approach to teaching.  The transition to e-learning requires patience and flexibility from all in our new learning environment. 

Our Dallas Academy teachers are resilient and our Take Flight instructor, Kelly Kimbrough, Dyslexia Therapist, is especially determined to bring her distinct strategies to her students despite the distance.  Ms. Kimbrough has been teaching Take Flight for 7 years and is enjoying working with her Dallas Academy Bulldogs.  Take Flight is a comprehensive intervention for students with dyslexia and Dallas Academy has adopted the Orton-Gillingham based curriculum written by the Luke Waites Center for Dyslexia and Learning Disorders at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.  Take Flight utilizes multi-sensory techniques, and we have sent home the supplies necessary for this instruction from home.  Ms. Kimbrough is now using assistive technology to give students their specialized lessons.  The computer touchscreen is used as a SmartBoard and the groups will be transitioning from utilizing Zoom to Microsoft Teams in the next weeks.

Ms. Kimbrough, like all the teachers at Dallas Academy has been Microsoft MIE certified over the summer and is using the Accessibility platform in Microsoft.  Accessibility offers students with learning differences many resources including Immersive Reader, sizing of text preferences, grammar options, use of Narrator with voice settings and speed and voice selection (male/female), and many more customization options. 

“We’re moving as fast as we can but as slow as we need to” says Ms. Kimbrough. We will continue to give tailored instruction at the pace of each child to meet their individual needs.  Our Take Flight program is well positioned to be back in person starting September 8th or continue e-learning if needed in the future.

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May 4, 2020

 

Dear Dallas Academy Community,

It is my great pleasure to announce that Dr. Mandi Skerbetz has been selected as the new Dallas Academy Assistant Head of School, effective June 1, 2020.  Dr. Skerbetz was chosen from a national pool of impressive candidates after a very thorough search process. In selecting Dr. Skerbetz as our new Assistant Head of School, we were impressed by her desire to advance Dallas Academy’s mission of providing full academic enrichment and her commitment to honoring the rich traditions and history of our school.  She has said that she is “excited and energized to support Dallas Academy as they move forward in creating robust individualized programming and curriculum for students with learning differences.”

As the new Assistant Head of School, Dr. Skerbetz will complete our leadership team and oversee the school’s academic program. Her role will include assuring the alignment and continuity of academic instruction, special programs including Executive Functioning and STARRS, school policies and procedures, and foster the rich school culture that is the hallmark of Dallas Academy.

Dr. Skerbetz not only brings an extensive level of educational leadership to Dallas Academy, she is also a passionate leader, dedicated to the pursuit of innovation and advancement of how we educate.  She is currently finishing a Clinical Faculty position with Johns Hopkins University and Urban Teachers where she has been teaching and coaching graduate level students on how to education children with special needs.  Prior to joining Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Skerbetz was Director of Student Support Services at South Fayette Township School District. From 2013-2015, Dr. Skerbetz was a Special Education faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh where she co-coordinated the MOSAIC (7-12 dual teacher certification) program. In addition, she served as a faculty fellow and founding advisory board member for the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Urban Education. Previous to joining the University of Pittsburgh, she was with Propel Schools for 10 years as a Special Education Teacher, Gifted Teacher, and Director of Pupil Services. Dr. Skerbetz holds an Ed.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in the Education of Students with Mental and Physical Disabilities, a M.Ed. in Special Education and a B.S. in Elementary Education from Duquesne University.

Dr. Skerbetz is currently working with graduate level teachers at Johns Hopkins University to develop the most appropriate e-learning options for students with special needs. With her experience,  we are well-positioned to create the most innovative solutions to programming and curriculum to meet the ever-changing needs of our students at Dallas Academy.  I look forward to welcoming Dr. Skerbetz and embracing the exciting work still ahead as we continue to meet the needs of our students today; ensuring they will enter the world well-prepared to serve and lead throughout their lives.

Elizabeth Murski, M.Ed.LPC

Head of School

See Attached Bio for Dr. Mandi Skerbetz

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18-year-old Thomas Eades, a student with ADHD and Autism has just been hired by Hypergiant Technologies after he learned Computer Assisted Design (CAD) through a leadership role in an all-school science project this spring.  Eades excelled at using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) to help develop a carbon positive model home design during his high school senior year. As a result of his work on the project, Eades achieved CAD certification. He was hired September 27 by Hypergiant Technologies, a new AI company in Austin. He'll spend one day a week in the office and the remaining time remote-building 3D models for Artificial Intelligence used to teach machines.

Another student, 11th grader Evan Bailey, served as one of the lead engineers for the Carbon Positive model. As a result of his participation with C+, Bailey received a scholarship to the summer program for high school students at SMU's Lyle School of Engineering.

The Positive Carbon Model Home was constructed by 100 students with learning disabilities at Dallas Academy in spring of 2019. The home won the Best Overall award at the World’s Largest EarthX 2019 Environmental Exposition at Fair Park in Dallas in April. Students from Dallas Academy, a small private school serving students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, autism, ADHD, and other learning disabilities – also called learning differences – edged out competing public and private high schools across the city for the top award. Students also presented the project at Dallas Academy’s STEM Day, May 9.

The 100-student science project was funded by a Constellation E2 Energy to Educate grant to inspire students to think differently about energy through a semester-long science project. Funding from Constellation Energy and the Moody Foundation supported a small group of seniors in leading the project with science teachers Darren Carollo and Anna Smith. The Dallas Academy Positive Carbon Model Home is fully operational, and includes smart glass windows, ducted HVAC system with thermo electric coolers, solar panels, wind turbines, a green roof, solar tubes, geothermal floors, pump and rain barrel collection, and other systems to ensure the house uses less energy than it generates.

Innovative solutions like using light-weight aluminum structures intended for robotics to frame out the house and bolting the house to a rolling cart allowed the model to be moved around the school so that grade levels from 6-12 could contribute to the home’s construction. “I’m so very proud of our students because they gave everything they had and spent cumulatively thousands of hours from early in the morning to late in the evening,” Mr. Carollo said. “Learning differences are no barrier when they are understood,” he added.

Carollo and Smith believe every school across the world should have a prototype positive carbon model for testing and research to aid in the awareness of reducing energy consumption.

by Patty Bates-Ballard

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A record $264,300 in foundation support made the 2018-19 school year a very successful one at Dallas Academy, as we helped students with learning disabilities reach their full academic potential. A $30,000 grant from Constellation New Energy and a $68,932 grant from The Moody Foundation for STEM equipment, robotics kits, and SMART board updates allowed 100 Dallas Academy (DA) students to work for a full semester to create a fully operational Carbon-Positive Model Home. The home features smart glass windows, ducted HVAC system with thermo electric coolers, solar panels, wind turbines, a green roof, solar tubes, geothermal floors, pump and rain barrel collection, and other systems to ensure the house uses less energy than it generates. Led by a small group of seniors and supported by science teachers Darren Carollo and Anna Smith, the project won the top award at the EarthX exposition in April, beating out other private and public schools in the area! 

 

Scholarship grants from The Billie & Gillis Thomas Family Foundation ($30,000.00), ORIX Foundation ($16,600), 100 Men Who Give a Damn–East Dallas ($3,300), and East Dallas Networking ($1500), along with unrestricted grants from The Lennox Family Foundation ($40,000) and The Dorsey and Whitney Foundation ($9,000), helped make it possible for Dallas Academy to provide 45 tuition assistance scholarships to families who otherwise could not afford tuition this school year. All students receiving scholarships are advancing to the next grade and will continue to develop important character skills like organization and teamwork. 

 

“Because DA is a small school for students with learning differences, we really need community support to provide students with these unique learning opportunities,” said Head of School Elizabeth Murski. “We are deeply grateful for all the support this year. We have some great ideas for projects this fall that will depend on philanthropic support, so we look forward to continued partnerships with donors,” she said.

 

Support for tuition assistance has helped Dallas Academy bring more ethnic and language diversity to the school. A portion of the ORIX Foundation grant and a $5,000 grant from the Yanigan Fund of the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund provided diversity awareness programming to teachers and students to help ensure that all students feel welcome and a sense of belonging at Dallas Academy.

 

Because textbooks, testing, and grading programs now live on the internet cloud, DA needed significant upgrades in technology. The Hillcrest Foundation provided $60,000 provided to assist with replacement of our computer fibers and switches ensuring faster, more efficient technology so students can focus on their studies when using classroom computers. Also, The Seay Foundation grant of $2,500 supported DA’s amazing Performing Arts programs, headed by music therapist Molly Grogan.

 

Dallas Academy is a private school on the shores of White Rock Lake serving students with learning disabilities, more accurately called learning differences. Dallas Academy offers a structured, multisensory program for students with diagnosed learning differences that may include impairments in reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia), and math (dyscalculia), ADD/ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, and memory and processing disorders. Dallas Academy offers students and parents the best of both worlds by providing an effective program and strategies to meet the special educational needs of bright students with learning differences while including the activities of a larger, more traditional school.

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June 4, 2019

DALLAS ACADEMY ANNOUNCES NEW HEAD OF SCHOOL

 

Dallas Academy is honored to announce Elizabeth Murski, M.Ed, LPC as Head of School.  Ms. Murski is Dallas Academy’s eighth Head of School in the fifty-four year history as the original learning difference school in Texas.  Since arriving in 2005, Murski has distinguished herself as a respected leader and visionary for the faculty and school.  “The future of Dallas Academy is bright, and we are confident that Ms. Murski is uniquely qualified to lead the school to continued success” says Terry Welch, Chairman of the Board of Trustees.  The Board was unanimous in its decision to appoint Murski after the departure of Dr. John Hill and is confident that she will provide dynamic leadership.  Murski worked under the direction of former Headmaster Jim Richardson who retired in 2015.   Murski is committed to continuing the rich tradition that makes Dallas Academy unique while positioning the School for the future. 

 

She is an expert in the field of learning differences and has helped build programs to meet the needs of the individual child.  Her child-centered philosophy of education, emphasizing the individuality of students and helping them realize their own individual potential, is rooted in her early work as a child and adolescent therapist.  Murski received her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Texas, a Master of Education degree from the University of North Texas, and is a Licensed Professional Counselor.  She is also a member of the Learning Disabilities Association, American Counseling Association, and Ursuline Academy Alumni Association.  Throughout her career, Murski has demonstrated a commitment to fostering learning environments for children that promote both intellectual inquiry and character development.  She was responsible for the facilitation and implementation of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in 2010.  She later expanded the comprehensive, long-term, school-wide program and added STARRS, a program dedicated to character development.  Her other notable contributions at Dallas Academy include her instrumental role in the merger of Dallas Academy and the Lattner Lower School in 2005 growing to a 1st – 12th grade school and playing a critical role in the multi-million dollar building expansion completed for opening the 2008-2009 school year.  Murski also created and implemented a school-wide student activities program where students are given a place to connect in a small and safe environment.

 “Dallas Academy is confident that Ms. Murski will continue to provide a safe and loving environment for our students to attain their highest level of academic, social and emotional achievement while offering hope to children and families impacted by learning differences,” said Welch.  “Her future vision of aligning curriculum and programming will support an Executive Functioning program designed to support academic achievement, behavior, and developmental goals.  She has a desire for Dallas Academy to continue to structure and allocate resources and ensure that our talented faculty and staff are able to uphold the mission statement of restoring the promise of full academic enrichment to our students.  We look forward to the next chapter at Dallas Academy where we will combine our important mission and rich school culture, with a plan to progress into the future.”