Newsmakers/Susan Johnson – For the common good, an uncommon approach


Long before the mass diagnoses of learning disabilities and the 1990s Ritalin wave, Dr. Susan J. Johnson acted on a friends suggestion and began teaching fifth grade.

That was more than 30 years ago. Now the Head of School at The Commonwealth Academy, a college preparatory school for learning-disabled children in Del Ray, she never looked back.

When cognitive disabilities were barely a field of study, Johnson was on maternity leave when she started tutoring a couple of kids in my class who I knew were not getting it. She knew that these kids were bright but they werent working to their potential.

What came about was an understanding of how they were learning, Johnson said. What I ended up doing almost intuitively was to break the process down, re-teach the steps and then build their vocabulary. Several months later, one of the girls Johnson tutored was the best problem solver in the classroom.

And Several years later, Dr. Johnsons focus has yet to change. At her direction, the Commonwealth Academy boasts competitive and progressive education strategies for learning disabled children, facilitated by small class sizes (the average is eight), highly-compatible technology and compensatory and accommodation tactics, like audiobooks for non-visual learners and large-font books for troubled readers.

Yet classes are taught holistically, not one-on-one.

Every teacher in my school knows the profile of the students in the room, said Dr. Johnson, who is a licensed psychologist. So when they design a lesson plan they design it in terms of the students sitting in front of them.

The Academys faculty, despite being employed by a special education school, is comprised of general education teachers, which is apt, because the curriculum is no different than that of area schools. The same textbooks are used. The same lessons are taught. But Commonwealth provides the context in which to learn those lessons.

Its about the setting, Johnson said. We actually give the kids tools to succeed in school. We actually empower them and thats what our mantra is: Empower the child. Empower the mind by having them understand what role these compensatory strategies and accommodations play.

They own the organizational structure. They own the time-management. They own all the things they practice with us. And they go [to college] and they are very, very successful.

One of their graduates just made the Deans List at Franklin Marshall, Johnson said.

Sometimes a childs only learning hindrance is a messy binder and poor organizational skills this type of learner is oft-misunderstood at a traditional high school, but would likely excel at the Academy, where attendees are all average to above average to very, very bright, despite learning disabilities, Johnson said. They are very typical kids.

The schools population currently maxes out at about 100 pupils, but is increasing to 150 next year, which is as big as it will get, according to Johnson. Any bigger and the schools small classes would disappear along with the schools cohesiveness a staple of its unique population.

Since the idea for the Commonwealth Academy was conceived by four mothers in 1994, Dr. Johnson has helped turn the school into a success, graduating students to college who may not have gone otherwise. The whole point is helping kids, she says. As long as we do right by the kids, Im all for it.