Interview: Ben Powers

BenPowersBen Powers began as Headmaster of Eagle Hill - Southport in Southport, CT in July 2012. Prior to that, he served as Headmaster at The Kildonan School in Amenia, NY. We interviewed Ben this fall about his unique skills as a headmaster, the LD stereotypes he hopes to tear down, and some of what Eagle Hill - Southport has to offer. According to the EHS website, “The school emphasizes academic, social and athletic skill development and strives to prepare students to be independent learners and citizens…With advances in curriculum, a new Middle School program, investments in our technology infrastructure, and new initiatives, like robotics and involvement in the Maker Movement, there is a lot going on at school.”  Camp Spring Creek: If you could offer one message to parents, potential employers, or members of society in general about life with a learning difference, what would that message be? What kind of shift in our thinking would be most helpful in bridging the gap or tearing down stereotypes?

Ben Powers: I believe one of the most important stereotypes to break down is the negative connotation of the word "disability." People with disabilities often bring many strengths to the table, like resiliency and problem-solving skills. Unfortunately, many times there is a focus on what people with disabilities can't do. Our students have specific disabilities in areas like reading, but they are not disabled from learning, and often, they are good problem solvers, forward-thinking, and creative people. Dr. Julie Logan from the Cass Business School in London did some groundbreaking research that demonstrated 35% of CEO's are LD. Our students will be the engine of the 21st century economy, and the sooner schools, universities, and employers realize what LD brains have to offer, the better!

CSC: Can you tell us about a particularly inspiring or moving moment you witnessed with a child, teacher, or parent in the LD community?

BP: One of the most moving memories I have is the time I took two students to San Francisco for EdRev, an annual LD student-centered conference. To watch Dan and Caitlin interact with other LD kids and be involved in projects with them made me realize the continued importance of the work we do at our schools and programs. More importantly, it made me realize the importance of fostering community and talking about learning disabilities even within the walls of our own schools. I think we sometimes take our schools and programs for granted and forget the importance of recognizing and talking about learning disabilities. In the mainstream, our students are often the outliers, and while we work hard to build self-advocacy, rebuild self-esteem, and further develop resiliency, the ability to connect with other students who share similar strengths and deficits, and understand there is a much larger community out there, is huge. To witness that firsthand and hear all of the students tell their stories was incredible. That experience turned into an annual trip to San Francisco for EdRev with a much larger group of students.

CSC: Each Headmaster brings his/her own personal skill set and passions to a job. Understanding that you carry forth the mission of EHS as set out by its founder, what would you say you bring above and beyond this mission?

BP: I was fortunate to walk into a well-grounded and thoughtful program with teachers and staff who really understand our students. The area I've tried to emphasize the most since beginning last July is enhancing the strengths-based aspect of the program, from even more engaging co-curricular activities to finding ways for assistive technologies to empower our students at an even higher level. We're working to incorporate more activities, like robotics, that many of our students have innate strengths with and are also finding more ways to elicit student strengths on an academic level, like using text-to-speech to allow students access to more demanding content that's aligned with their intelligence rather than their reading level. We incorporated a 1:1 iPad program in our middle school this year, and it has been hugely successful. Since iPads are mainstream, it allows our students to access content, like textbooks, that the "mainstream" education world is using, while at the same time, they can leverage the embedded assistive technologies, like text-to-speech and speech-to-text for reading and writing.

CSC: Students at EHS have six academic classes per day, including Tutorial and Writing. Do tutors/instructors utilize the Orton-Gillingham approach at EHS?

BP: Our twice-daily tutorials provide direct, language-based instruction in reading comprehension, vocabulary, and targeted study skills. We do have several Orton-Gillingham trained tutors (we've used O-G Fellow Susan Santora from The Learning House), and we're actually in the process of aligning ourselves with a Fellow who can do more onsite training both for our own teachers and other educators in the area. In addition to O-G, we also have teachers trained in PAF, Wilson, and Lindamood-Bell, among other programs and approaches. Since we have a variety of learners at EHS, we do not subscribe to one methodology or approach; however, we know that our students benefit from diagnostic-prescriptive, hands-on learning.