Fletcher In the News
Cristina Bolling interviewed Dr. Tara Terry for The Charlotte Ledger's August 28, 2023 edition:
For families with a child struggling to learn, it can be a long road between realizing there’s a problem and figuring out the best way to take action.
For some students, having schools closed during the pandemic slowed down their diagnoses of dyslexia, dysgraphia (writing difficulties) and other learning disabilities. But for others, schooling at home during the pandemic gave parents more of a glimpse into their child’s challenges and spurred them to take action.
Tara Terry, head of school at The Fletcher School, and her staff have seen all of that firsthand. The phones have been busy at the south Charlotte private school for students with learning disabilities during the last four years, as parents have sought schooling alternatives, or sometimes just counsel, for their children.
Enrollment at The Fletcher School is up at about 10% since the pandemic, Terry said, and its 288 K-12 students started back last week. Tuition at Fletcher costs $27,600 for students in grades K-5 and $29,100 for grades 6-12. Families can apply for state grants and need-based scholarships to help cover the cost and can spread payments out, Terry said.
Terry has been the head of the 41-year-old Fletcher School since July 2022. She was previously assistant head of school for academics at The Howard School in Atlanta, which is an independent K-12 school serving 350 students with language-based learning differences.
Recently, she sat down with The Ledger to talk about what’s new in the world of education for kids with learning differences, how public perception of disabilities like dyslexia have changed, and how Fletcher approaches teaching its students.
The conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How did having kids learning from home during the pandemic change how parents were able to know that their children needed help?
They recognized that their children were struggling sooner than they would have if they hadn’t seen it happen in action. One parent said she saw her son struggling and kept asking the teacher and the teacher was like, “This is developmental. This is developmental.” And she said, “But I can see the other kids, too — he wasn’t able to do it.”
She said, “We got him tested a lot earlier than we would have, we found Fletcher a lot earlier than we would have.”
Q: It seems like “learning disabilities” can mean a lot of things. What specific criteria do students at Fletcher need to meet to be admitted?
For students who are in second through fifth grade, you have to have a diagnosis of a specific learning disability. Typically, our students are diagnosed with dyslexia, but we also serve students who have written expression disabilities, math disabilities. You can also have a diagnosis of ADHD, but it can’t be your primary diagnosis.
Beginning in sixth through 12th grade, you can have a primary diagnosis of ADHD, but it has to be impacting your schoolwork. So a student who’s making all A’s but is a little bit stressed because of their ADHD is not well-served here — you just don't need our level of support. Most of our students in sixth through 12th grade are also diagnosed with a specific learning disability, often dyslexia. In kindergarten and first grade, we don’t require a diagnosis. But what we do look for — and the reason for that it’s very difficult to diagnose that early — is that they haven’t had a lot of school. You just don’t know yet.
We do not serve kids on the autism spectrum, but we get a lot of inquiries about that. Our admissions department is great about referring to schools that would be appropriate, based on the profile.
Q: When are parents most likely to seek help for a child who might not be learning at the same level as their peers?
We get a ton of inquiries in third, fourth, fifth grades, because parents have waited a long time to recognize just how far behind students are. That’s also the time those standardized tests start coming out.
Also, a lot of our parents are able to see what is going on in preschool, kindergarten, first grade, and go ahead and make a move earlier. And we know early intervention is better. It’s helpful for us to get students when they’re just learning to read.
Q: Is Fletcher usually a first stop for parents? Or do you find that families have taken a bunch of twists and turns to get here?
About half of our families come from independent (private) schools and about half from public schools. We often get families who come from independent schools as referrals, because the independent schools know us. The public schools can’t refer to us, because then they would have to pay for us, and so they’re not allowed to do that.
When students get tested privately by a private psychologist, those professionals know us, too, and they’ll often refer children to us and families to us. And then sometimes families just start to Google “learning differences, learning disabilities, dyslexia,” and they end up here with us. We get a lot of inquiries — a lot of online inquiries and a lot of phone calls.
Q: Have things changed in how society views learning disabilities? Do you think the pandemic has maybe had a role in changes in perception?
I think the pandemic certainly raised awareness of how difficult it is to learn in these giant classrooms, and I think that parents got to really see that firsthand. Like I said earlier, they got to see their kids struggling earlier.
I also think there’s just less stigma associated with having a diagnosis of dyslexia. It doesn’t mean a single thing about your intelligence. In fact, most of our kids are really smart, because you have to be to get around the things that are hard for you. I think that people are beginning to see that having accommodations doesn’t mean anything — it just means you have an accommodation.
When parents come here, and they walk in the building and they see what it looks like, we are a happy place full of 280-something really happy kids. And so, there’s also the sort of, “Oh, this is just school.” You go to math class, and you go to reading class, and you go to art, and you go to lunch, and you have PE, and you go to after(-school) care. It looks like every other school. And I think that helps parents. OK, this diagnosis is one tiny piece of my child’s life. It’s a really important piece that we need to deal with, but it’s not their entire existence.