Building a better school with her son in mind
Potomac educator founds school with holistic approach to special needs students
Having suffered from epileptic fits since he was eight months old, Nicol had a ‘‘village” behind him, from therapists to special needs teachers to neurologists, Copeland said.
‘‘The list came to 32 names, and then I realized not one of the people on the list actually talked to another,” she said.
That’s when Copeland decided that what her son — and other special needs children like him — really needed to reach his full potential is a more holistic approach.
‘‘I thought of the benefits of having all those specialists sitting down at the same table,” she said. ‘‘And that’s what generated this idea...of opening a school where specialists can collaborate and look at the whole child, not just the academic piece.”
This fall, she is welcoming a handful of students to the Diener School, a private school she founded for kindergarten through third-grade students with attention disorders, behavioral challenges, and sensory, language or learning disabilities.
The school is housed in two classrooms at Congregation Har Shalom on Falls Road, with two special education teachers heading a team that includes speech and occupational therapists, an academic therapist, music and art teachers, and yoga and fitness instructors.
‘‘I know from experience that the hardest thing for a parent is not knowing where to go for help and to connect the lines between all the therapists,” Copeland said. ‘‘This program looks at each child’s individual needs...and incorporates social development and movement into the school day.”
At $32,000 a year in tuition fees, the school represents a real commitment for families looking for individualized attention.
For Carol Scott, of Gaithersburg, the school’s small classes and focus on treating each child as a complete entity makes it a perfect fit for her 6-year-old son Trevor.
‘‘We were a little apprehensive about the newness of the school,’ Scott said. ‘‘That’s a little scary, but on the plus side, we also get to help in the formation of [the school].”
The school’s holistic approach to education is just what her son, who has motor delays and learning disabilities, needs to thrive, Scott said.
‘‘Trevor doesn’t learn the way other children learn,” she said. ‘‘[Copeland] recognizes and understands that a child is a complete entity...and we’re excited about the coming school year.”
Copeland named the school after her late grandfather, a man that she credits with instilling in her an interest in teaching.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Georgia, Copeland returned to Potomac, where she grew up, in 1991 and became an elementary school teacher for Montgomery County Public Schools. She became a teacher trainer after earning a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1996.
But the mother of four sons now ages 6 to 12 cut back to a part-time position when Nicol, her next-to-youngest, experienced the first of his epileptic seizures.
‘‘Up to Nicol was 3 years old, all we were concerned about was his medical condition, making sure he lived,” Copeland said. ‘‘I may have been naïve, but I didn’t realize that along with epilepsy often comes learning disabilities and sensory problems.”
From preschool on, at a variety of county-run and private schools, he failed to thrive, she said.
She had started an educational consultant company, helping other families to find just the right school to fit a child’s needs, and decided to basically build a school to fit the educational needs of children like her son Nicol.
She surveyed parents and educators, visited more than a dozen special needs schools on in the mid-Atlantic region, and developed a plan.
Her formula for success is small classes, daily art and music sessions, plenty of movement built into the day, and classes taught ‘‘thematically” to reinforce concepts.
‘‘There will be twice-weekly field trips tied into the themes,” she said.
To build social skills, each child will be paired with a middle school ‘‘buddy” volunteer to learn how to make friends on the playground and other life lessons.
‘‘Most special needs kids learn social skills at after-school sessions. We want that to be part of our everyday routine,” Copeland said. ‘‘These kids can get beaten down because learning is so hard for them. I want to give them a chance to feel good about themselves, to learn how to go out into the world and make a difference.”
To learn more
To learn more go to www.TheDienerSchool.org or call 301-221-1671. The school is hosting open houses at 10 a.m. Oct. 11, Nov. 6 and Dec. 13.