Contemplations from Kim: The Power of Purpose is Limitless

By Kim Wargo, Head of School

I believe wholeheartedly in the power of knowing and claiming our why – because in doing so, we ensure that the sky is the limit for our amazing students.

Click here to listen to an audio recording of this month's column.

One of my first memories of visiting Lab as a candidate for the Head of School position in October 2019 is the Reception Room in the building we call The Castle.

reception room awardee wall

On the walls of this room are dozens and dozens of black-and-white photographs of people. When I stopped for a moment to take a look at the photos, I was stunned by the array of actors, writers, entrepreneurs, athletes, lawyers, activists, poets, teachers, economists, and so many other big thinkers and big doers. The obvious question that flitted through my mind was “What do all of these people have in common?”

And the answer, of course, is that each of them has been a recipient of Lab’s Outstanding Achiever with Learning Differences award at our annual gala. What this also means is that each and every one of them has spent time on our campus, visiting classrooms, meeting teachers, and talking with students.

I’ve experienced three galas as Lab’s Head of School – soon to be four on March 16! During each of those three previous experiences meeting our awardees, I heard a common refrain: “I wish I could have gone to a school like Lab.”

What is it about Lab that prompted each of these big thinkers to imagine what it would have been like if they could have been a student here?

I think it comes down to our purpose – our why.

There are multiple approaches that one can take to help a child who has a learning difference.

There’s the remediation approach. This path involves finding a well-trained tutor who can provide extra support before, during, or after school. Certainly, sometimes this approach can be successful. But, let’s face it, a lot of the time it just creates an exhausted, frustrated child, and therefore, an exhausted, frustrated family.

Another approach is to find a school with a focus on remediating the learning difference. This type of program is geared toward “closing the gap” of academic skills as quickly as possible, with the goal of sending the student back to their “mainstream” school. There’s no doubt that this approach can also be successful in helping a child with dyslexia or another language-based learning differences learn to read.

However, this approach implies – whether explicitly or implicitly – that there is something about the child that needs to be “fixed.”

This not the approach we take at Lab. Without a doubt, we work with students through direct, science-based intervention strategies to overcome their greatest challenges in becoming fluent readers, writers, mathematicians, and students. Direct, focused and science-based interventions and strategies are critical for students with learning differences.

However, at Lab our first and most important principle is to approach each student with a strengths-based model. We start with the overarching and unwavering premise that their brains do not need to be “fixed.” We want our students to understand their many strengths so that they can build upon those strengths to work on the things that are challenging.

This approach is holistic. We don’t think of our students as “LD-students.” We think of them as students, as people, people with many facets and unlimited potential. Our goal for our students is that they become – through the empowering experience of knowing themselves as learners and as human beings – the best possible versions of themselves. This approach requires supporting them in their social-emotional development, as well as their academic skills. This approach means giving them practice in managing conflict, and in learning from mistakes – both in the classroom, on the court, and in interpersonal relationships.

How do we know that we are successful in these endeavors? We see the evidence of it around us every day in the accomplishments of our students. I am constantly inspired by the way our students grow into themselves, and these past few weeks have offered a few examples of this success.

First, we see this success in our Eye to Eye mentors. They demonstrate the confidence that comes from knowing, accepting, and celebrating yourself.

photo card of eye to eye mentor

Eye to Eye is a national mentoring organization whose mission is “to improve the educational experience and outcomes of neurodiverse young people, while engaging them and their allies in the movement for a more equitable and inclusive society.”

Lab has had an Eye to Eye chapter for many years; until the COVID pandemic, our Upper School students mentored younger students with learning differences from area public schools. Because of the many restrictions from COVID protocols, a few years ago we shifted our focus to having our Upper School students work with Lab Middle and Lower school students. This has proven to be an extraordinary development, allowing our younger students to see themselves in their mentors.

Recently, our Upper School mentors were asked to fill in the blank to answer the following statement: “I am an Eye to Eye mentor because….”

You can see all of their answers (and learn a bit more about each mentor) by viewing this slideshow.

However, here are just a few of their reasons for serving as a mentor:

  • “I want to show LD kids that they’re not alone.”
  • “I want to show kids they can be confident in their LDs.”
  • “I want to give back to my Lab community.”
  • “I want to be a role model to kids with learning differences like me.”
  • “I believe in superheroes.”

We also witness our success in the stories of our graduates.

group shot of alumni at alumni event

About a month ago, Lab hosted an alumni event for all of our alums. It was wonderful to reconnect with almost 100 alumni from all across our decades of history, and to hear their stories of navigating their various chapters after Lab.

As part of this event, we invited four of our current college-aged alumni to speak to current Upper School and 8th grade students.

panel of alumni on stage

We asked them how Lab’s Upper School had prepared them for life after Lab and for college. As they walked us through the specifics of their college experiences thus far, we were moved by our graduates’ self-awareness, their confidence, and their willingness to openly share their experiences.

Lauren ’22 (now at Sarah Lawrence College) summed it up well when she shared that “Lab taught me how to advocate for myself in the classroom, especially now that I am in a school that is not focused on people that have learning differences. It made a big difference that I knew how to speak my mind, and definitely made an easier transition to college.”

Our work extends far beyond reading and math instruction, and it is why we are so committed to each student as a whole person. Our work is to ensure that each student who comes through our doors understands who they are – in all their various identities and complexities – and that they feel empowered by that knowledge to tackle the world beyond Lab.

As we prepare to celebrate our 60th birthday in a few years, Lab is embarking on an exciting project of succinctly stating and embracing our mission. We will be reaching out to our community to help us share with the world in the simplest and most powerful language our purpose, our why. We look forward to sharing more about this project with you in the coming weeks and months.

t-shirt with slogan

When our faculty and staff returned from Winter Break, we gifted each of them with a t-shirt that proudly declares them a member of the “Lab staffulty.” On the back of this shirt is a simple message: “The power of purpose is limitless.”

I believe wholeheartedly in the power of knowing and claiming our why – because in doing so, we ensure that the sky is the limit for our amazing students.