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Head of Stephen Gaynor School Promotes Highly Individualized Education

By Emily Frost | February 15, 2015 6:18pm
 Scott Gaynor aims to continue the mission and values of the 52-year-old school his grandmother founded.
Stephen Gaynor Schools Principal
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UPPER WEST SIDE — If you visit the Stephen Gaynor School on a Monday morning, you might be greeted by an affectionate Tibetan Terrier.

At the start of the week, the terrier Clyde goes out to greet students as they enter the building, on a day they may need a little extra boost, explained his owner, Head of School Scott Gaynor.

Similarly, if a student is visiting the school for the first time and it happens to be a Monday, "[Clyde] goes out and sticks his nose on the child’s lap," said Gaynor, 47. 

By bringing in Clyde, Gaynor, who has led the private school for 15 years, hopes to reinforce the open, warm culture the school has been known for since it was co-founded by his grandmother 52 years ago, he said. 

Openness and collaboration are at the heart of the pre-K through 8th grade school for students with learning differences. Teachers are expected to frequently confer about student progress as well as best teaching practices. 

"If [as a teacher] you want to shut your door, this isn't the right place for you," said Gaynor of his staff. 

Students don't work in isolation either. Unlike schools for typical learners where a student with dyslexia might get pulled out of the classroom for solo instruction, at Stephen Gaynor, reading specialists are brought into the classroom and work in conjunction with the head and assistant teacher. All three teachers trade off leading instruction, Gaynor said. 

Teachers and specialists work together to chart the course for a student in a way that's integrated, he said.

The specialist also sees how the student is progressing in a classroom setting, rather than just in a private one-on-one session, as is usually the case, added Gaynor. 

Gaynor is also trying to influence the approach to special education outside his school, where tuition this year is $54,700. He was elected president of the New York Association of Independent Schools and in that role he's introduced a full-day symposium for the association focused on improving special education. 

DNAinfo sat down with Gaynor to talk about how he's carrying out the vision of his grandmother, Mimi Michael, and how the school — named for one of Michael's sons Stephen Gaynor is expanding. 

How does your curriculum work?

We don’t have a textbook or a curriculum guide. It is up to the child and the teacher to determine the pace of the material, the scaffolding that they need. 

When I’m teaching a child, I need to not be concerned with finishing the lesson plan for the day. I need to be concerned with, are they all receiving the information and can demonstrate that they can get it? What am I doing to change that in the moment?

We give the teachers the license to say, "I’m not moving on from fractions to decimals." That’s a very important philosophy of the school. It is reminding teachers that a child’s success isn’t dictated by finishing a textbook or lesson or reading X number of books.

What if some children are ready to move ahead in the lesson but others aren't?

Individualizing doesn’t mean a remedial curriculum. If a child is excelling in an area, teachers will differentiate the lesson or move that child to another group. Just because a child has a learning difference doesn’t mean all their skills are below average. 

It is our job to support the child and challenge them in areas where they feel confident and strong. There are many ways we can build up a child’s confidence and opportunities to challenge them in academic areas where they’re strong.

When a child feels good, they’re willing to take risks. When they’re willing to fail, that’s when you see growth.

Would you consider expanding the school to include a high school? 

There are always parents popping in and saying "why don’t you start a high school?"

Because we end after middle school, it makes us very focused on our mission. With a longer time frame, you lose a sense of urgency about preparing the children.

We have a very strong middle school program and academic expectations ... it’s leading towards greater independence. 

Students aren't encouraged to stay at Gaynor for longer than they need to — how do you find them a new home?

Our goal is to get children back to a school that’s appropriate for them. We’re looking to see if this is the right time. It could happen at middle school or any time along the way.

There’s a nice balance of families who identify that their children are ready to leave. 

[Leaving is] an unsettling feeling. We really work hard to support them by giving them the gentle push out the door.

And how do students initially find Gaynor?

We have a wonderful relationship with many of schools in New York City. The school psychologists and the heads of the lower schools [at city schools] are familiar with our school. That’s the first recommendation that they have ... There are more children that need our support than we have seats for.

You expanded the middle school space is 2012 with a major renovation of an adjoining carriage house. What are Gaynor's plans for growing? 

We’ve been able to build a more robust middle school as we’ve grown into our new space. We now have 330 students, soon to be almost 400 students. But to be true to your mission, you can’t grow too fast. You have to make sure the school can embrace new families.