Cut into syllables, one of Wednesday’s vocabulary words was displayed on the board in Rachel Schiff’s fourth-grade classroom in Manhattan.
The children rang out the beats:
Watching from the back of the room was Charlie Salzer, a tall, bearded man. At 26, Mr. Salzer, a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College and a licensed ship captain, has traveled the world for four years as a mate on yachts. In fourth grade, he was in approximately the same place as the little sprites with their hands up. Except that his hand wasn’t raised 17 years ago.
Like all the fourth graders in that room, Mr. Salzer had a learning disability based on how his brain handled language.
“Until fourth grade, you’re learning to read,” Mr. Salzer said. “Then it changes. You begin reading to learn. And you can’t fake it anymore.”
Two weeks ago, classes began in this building at 212 East 93rd Street, the new home of the Windward School, which also has campuses north of the city in White Plains. Its mission is to teach children how to handle learning disabilities. The aim is to return them as quickly as possible with the skills to thrive in mainstream schools, said the head of school, John J. Russell.
“In order to get in, you have to fail the admissions test,” Dr. Russell said. “When you start doing well, we ask you to leave. No treading water here.”
Children at the school draw words in the air, write them on paper, shape letters out of clay, read from books or the classroom board. In Ms. Schiff’s classroom, they pronounced the word, read it in sentences, looked at a picture of two rooms — one tidy and well kept, the other dirty, with broken furniture. Which one was abandoned? The teaching strategy is to connect words to their meanings through multiple senses, to bring the voltage of meaning to the letters on a page. The parent of one fourth grader said her son, who could barely read a year ago, now confidently pages through this newspaper. (Or scrolls its digital incarnations.)
Windward’s success is not a curated basket of anecdotes, Dr. Russell said: About a third of the students who start there score significantly below average on standardized tests of reading comprehension and math. After four years — depending on the child — 98 percent are scoring average or above average, he said, and follow-up surveys at their high schools have found that the skills stick.
As a boy in elementary school in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan, Mr. Salzer got by on charm and bluster. One day, a teacher stepped into the hallway for a quiet word with his father, Michael Salzer. “She said, ‘You have to get him tested,’” Michael Salzer said.
With that, the past came screaming into the father’s head. Decades earlier, Michael Salzer’s own fourth-grade report card had described him as a helpful boy and dreadful student. “Mike has put very little effort into his school work,” the teacher had written.
For his son, the elder Mr. Salzer, who owns a company that produces television commercials, found the Windward School in White Plains appealing: “Get them in, get them out.” He joined the Windward board after Charlie moved on to high school, and has helped raise $50 million for the new building. Tuition is $54,200, and about 17 percent of the families receive financial aid, Dr. Russell said.
Before even experienced teachers are allowed to run their own classrooms, they attend Windward’s training institute and study the gears that make reading possible, and also work under a master teacher for up to two years.
“Language is natural, but reading is not,” Dr. Russell said, citing “Proust and the Squid,” an account of the neuroscience of reading by Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University. “She writes that ‘we were never born to read.’”
In broad strokes, Dr. Wolf’s book explains that for reading to be possible, several neural networks that evolved for other purposes have to be deployed and combined: Through our ability to recognize objects, we process lines and curves into letters that we know the sound of; our spoken language informs the way we recognize letters and words; and executive function makes it possible to instantly assemble these parts as we read. Once that becomes automatic, we can start to crack open the meaning.
This week in Ms. Schiff’s class, the word of the day was put to work in sentences, and the eight children called it out. Dust and spider webs cover an abandoned house. The abandoned car was rusty. Weeds grew over an abandoned garden. If J. K. Rowling had abandoned her dreams of writing, there would never have been Harry Potter books.
Abandoned, they learned, means left behind, not taken care of.
It was a word from a book.