Town & Country School Prepares Students Who Learn Differently
Kari Wheeler describes Tulsa’s Town & Country School as her family’s “safe place.” “We don’t have to hand a flyer out about our child to the other parents and teachers. Everyone ‘gets it’ at this school.”
Wheeler has two children attending Town & Country, Andrew, a senior, and Lauren, a freshman. “When Andrew entered Town & Country 11 years ago, he was not reading and drew everything in black. Within several months at the school, his whole world changed for the better. He started to read and was coloring with vibrant colors. You change a child’s self esteem and you can change the world,” Wheeler said.
Town & Country School, founded in 1961, is Oklahoma’s only accredited, non-public, full-day school for kindergarten through twelfth grade students who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, attention disorders and Asperger’s Syndrome/Autism Spectrum disorders. In 2012 the school relocated from its south Tulsa campus into an east Tulsa facility previously home to Tulsa Public Schools’ Fulton Teaching and Learning Academy. The move has more than doubled the school’s classroom and facility space and has enabled staff to expand special services for students and families.
Now in her second year as Town & Country’s Executive Director, Loretta Keller has been a vital part of the school’s community for 20 years. “I was a parent at the school. I served on the school’s Board of Directors for 18 years and my son attended Town & Country and is now 38 and lives on his own and works,” Keller smiles.
Town & Country’s current enrollment is 162 students with some families commuting daily from as far as Bartlesville and Muskogee.
“Enrollment continues throughout the school year,” Keller said. “Because of the type of school we are, parents call throughout the year to see about attending Town & Country. Many times a child will start a school and after a month the parent sees that school is not going to work for their child and they call us. We work very hard to accommodate children. We do have children here who have benefitted from the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships as well as our own Town & Country scholarships.”
Lower School Head Denise Jurbala said many of the younger children who come to Town & Country School have low self-esteem.
“Either they have been bullied because of their disability or they are just aware that they struggle in school. Once here, we help build their confidence. We have a no bullying policy,” Jurbala said. “Every student learns to be supportive of his classmates.”
Children entering Town & Country in the first grade jump into “The Pond.”
“We have multi–age, multi-grade classrooms,” said Jurbala, now in her 27th year with the school. “Some of our kids don’t advance year by year to another grade. So instead of calling it ‘grades’ in lower school, we call it ‘habitats’.”
From The Pond children advance to The Outback, The Coral Reef, The Mountain Range, The Tropical Island, The Rain Forest and The Arctic Tundra.
A typical lower school class day at Town & Country includes reading, writing, social studies, math and individualized, disability-specific therapy.
“Every day these kids receive individual speech and occupational therapy as well as help with social and motor skills,” Jurbala said. “Our students have physical education each day and we now incorporate over an hour of uninterrupted reading.”
Classrooms are spacious and designed for comfort and to ease a student’s anxiety while learning. If a student cannot sit still in a chair, a large exercise ball, soft and a bit bouncy, is an option. There are small chairs, standing desks, stools and large, long rubber bands secured to the bottom of desks to relieve nervous feet movement. There is a bin of noise-cancelling headphones and a pup tent tucked in a corner for a student who seeks seclusion.
“One boy likes to pace in the back of the room, sit down and work and rise and pace some more. That is okay,” Jurbala said. “Each room has a safe place, a pup tent where a student can go and hear what is going on in the class but feel alone and not surrounded by others. There is a bean bin that kids can sit in to relieve anxiety. I even have kids who take their spelling tests in the bean bin.”
Teachers keep parents informed of their child’s progress as well as setbacks, and therapists are available to assist parents in understanding the intricacies of their child’s disability. The school’s Parent Teacher League (PTL) meetings include discussions on topics that help students and parents succeed.
Wheeler, president of Town & Country PTL said, “Our PTL provides financial support for our kids and the teachers. All of our families are involved with the PTL. We realize that parent involvement is a key to our children’s success at school. Our PTL meetings are designed around the success of the family. This could include anxiety discussions, sensory issues, summer camps, activities for our kids and a variety of topics that help our kids and parents succeed. Financial support includes smart boards in all classrooms, playground equipment, copiers for teachers, field trips or just anything needed on behalf of our kids and teachers. It takes a village and we are all here to support each other.”
Like all middle and high schools, Town & Country keeps teen students active. Besides a full academic load, students participate in clubs, cheer, sports and outside activities.
“Our middle and high school students finally have a group of friends they actually feel comfortable around and feel accepted. They become very close and support each other. We make their high school experience as close to normal as possible. We have prom, monthly activities and encourage socializing,” Keller said.
Wheeler’s son and daughter went away to camp over the summer, an adventure she credits to their growing confidence from school and friends. “My kids went to Falls Creek (camp) this summer and never called home. At first I was shocked and then realized, Thank you, God! My kids are going to be just fine. My kids are confident in who they are. They have a fabulous school, family and friends to support them.”
Each year Town & Country graduates 12 seniors. A recent survey conducted by the school of past graduates showed that 80 percent went on to higher education, 18 percent entered the workforce and 2 percent entered the military.
Town & Country Development Director Dawn Duca said the school is beginning a new program this fall called Transition to College Success. “It is important for seniors to see all their possibilities when they graduate from school. Some students are not ready to go to college. We are partnering with agencies in town to help students discover career choices and job skills which can lead to further education and work.”