Surprisingly, Austin's best kept secret isn't an out-of-the-way taco shack or hidden swimming hole; rather, it's something in plain sight. It's a place where kids — and families — often affected by a lack of social and educational options finally find relief. At Odyssey School, students with learning disabilities are taught to see their differences as an advantage.
The American Psychological Association estimates three out of 10 people have a learning disability (LD). As the only accredited, independent middle school and high school in Central Texas that teaches solely individuals with learning differences, Odyssey picks up where the special education component within Texas’ public school system often leaves off. Instead of lumping all learning disorders into the same category, Odyssey's faculty and staff are equipped to address the needs of complex students with multiple learning disorders and prepare them for college level work with a multi-sensory approach to learning.
Parent Amy Riesterer explains that her family ultimately decided to relocate to Austin from Wisconsin because of Odyssey's program which promotes students' independence, confidence and autonomy in classrooms where the ratio is one teacher per eight students.
"Charter school, public school, home school, private school — we had tried everything," she says. "The fact that [Odyssey] is offering these services this high up in education is very unique."
The surmountable challenge
The older LD students become, the more difficult it is for teachers to tailor material for their individual needs while simultaneously keeping the normed students on track for state testing requirements. At Odyssey, the onus lies on the teachers to masterfully interpret one lesson plan eight different ways.
“That's what's hard in education, there’s not really that easy answer — you have to look at that individual person and see how their mind works and see what program you need to develop for them." - John Brinson
“You have to have a global approach with kids, and it’s not one size fits all," says John Brinson, head of school. “That's what's hard in education — there’s not really that easy answer. You have to look at that individual person, see how their mind works and see what program you need to develop for them. And it’s not going to be the same for another person who has the exact same diagnosis because their learning style might not be the same.”
Because Riesterer's high-school age child is no longer crippled by the anxiety of falling behind in a class, she says that the family dynamics have changed "in such a positive way." "He now knows, 'They’re not going to charge ahead without me, it's not going to get worse. If I don't get it the next day we will find another way to look at it.’" He's now thriving in an economics class because teachers have taught him to associate complex concepts with businesses he knows and understands, like Apple.
As Riesterer explains, it's not uncommon for the parents of an LD child to simply "try to make it through" the education system rather than thrive within it. Odyssey hopes to reverse apathy and encourage risk-taking.
"So often LD kids are living in fear, never showing creativity because they're so afraid of the social repercussions," says Brinson. "It's an open environment here. In order to be successful here, you have to own [your learning disorder]."
Odyssey's point of difference
A highly unique and intentional part of the Odyssey experience is the students' close proximity to adults, versus the option of another school with thousands of students and the consequential development of dozens of "cliques." With 60 students total, and eight in each class, students are afforded a lot of adult models as well as the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Says Brinson, "We're a very forgiving environment."
"If [kids] don't get discouraged so early, they can realize that about themselves and then they really can be fantastic contributing members to society." - Amy Riesterer
"Our kids are allowed to mature at a faster rate because they're in an environment where we're helping them making those adult choices and asking them those adult questions: How do you solve this? What are the extra responsibilities we can give you?" Brinson explains. "We expect them to do more than a lot of people would expect them to do, even past your normed kids." This includes overnight science trips, mandatory community activism, and a career exploration component.
Each year, every student, youngest to oldest, presents a portfolio of the year's learnings before the director, teachers, parents and community members. While Brinson admits it's a stress on the students, the presentation offers students the opportunity to address their progress, set goals and assess their individual strengths and weaknesses.
Launching the future
As Smith put it, "If you're a kid with a learning disability, you're going to be an adult with a learning disability." With a few exceptions, all Odyssey students go on to a four-year program, community college or trade school upon graduation and go on to become the next scientists, engineers or artists, in part because Odyssey has helped them identify a career path that caters to their strengths.
Brinson continually holds conversations with the Austin Chamber of Commerce in an effort to promote the visibility of the school so the city can attract top engineers and businesspeople who may have children with learning disabilities. Furthermore, children with learning differences often thrive in the areas that Austin is famous for.
"What are the qualities of the city of Austin?" he asks. "We’re a tech hub, we have a creative class, we're the music capital. Those qualities of our city are the qualities that our kids really thrive in. Having [Odyssey] as a resource strengthens our city."
On Friday April 19, Odyssey is holding its spring fundraiser in order to keep the school a secret no more. Through auctions, food, drinks and entertainment by famed Bob Schneider, Odyssey hopes to raise financial support the school — and to raise awareness for learning disabilities in general.
"These kids are super bright and creative," explains Riesterer, "and I think if they don't get discouraged so early, they can realize that about themselves, and then they really can be fantastic contributing members to society."
To purchase tickets ($50 in advance, $60 at the door) to Odyssey's April 19 fundraiser at Hill's Cafe, visit the event's website.