Forty summers ago in St. Louis, a handful of educators gathered with 21 struggling readers in donated classroom space and unknowingly launched a legacy.
That first seven-week summer session for students with learning disabilities fulfilled a dream of parents who wanted to bring to their own community the type of support and instruction they had previously only found for their children in far-away boarding schools.
Following three successful summers and with the support of the greater community and pioneering mentors, the burgeoning summer school expanded to become a full-time day program in the fall of 1980. Since then, the not-for-profit Churchill Center & School has grown to become a nationally recognized leader in learning disability education, as well as a Wilson® Accredited Partner providing professional training in Fundations®, Just Words®, and the Wilson Reading System®.
“Churchill is a school for kids who are bright and smart, but need to learn in a different way,” explained Director Sandra Gilligan, who was hired to develop and run the summer program four decades ago and has remained at the school’s helm ever since. “This is a place where students can learn for a time, then return to their home school.”
Prior to launching the summer program in 1978, Sandi turned to Charles “Chad” Drake, the founding headmaster of the Landmark School in Boston, for guidance and advice. He assisted with structuring the summer program and continued to provide teachers with professional learning.
Initially housed at Mary Institute, Churchill school quickly outgrew that space and went on to lease the top floor and gym of a shuttered public school building. In 1984, Churchill’s Board of Directors achieved another dream when it purchased and renovated a building large enough to accommodate the growing student population and programs.
After researching multisensory structured language programs that were on the leading edge of dyslexia education, Churchill incorporated the Wilson Reading System into its curriculum and began providing in-depth training to schools and groups of educators in the St. Louis region.
“Our students almost become experts in Wilson along the way,” Sandi said. “They develop an understanding about how they learn and are able to talk about it. They develop that comfort level, that ‘this is part of me; it is part of how I learn. It’s not a bad thing; there are good things about it as well.’ They become aware of the importance of understanding language and why you do multisensory learning, beyond because ‘it’s what the teacher says to do.’”
Another dream came to fruition in 2007 with the opening of a new campus large enough to accommodate expanded programs in art, music, and science to further enhance a well-rounded academic experience for students.
“We knew we wanted to have a model where we could get kids back into mainstream and traditional classrooms,” Sandi explained. Enrollment is now capped at 150 students during the academic year.
“It’s the perfect size for a school like this. We wanted every child to know every teacher and every teacher to know every child,” she said.
Churchill became a Wilson Accredited Partner in 2011. It currently has four Wilson credentialed trainers on staff to support the growth and development of all Wilson tutors through coaching, study groups, and workshops. In addition to its academic programs, the Churchill team is actively involved in community education events, including a professional development workshop series and workshops for parents. The school continues to run its robust summer program.
“Over the last 40 years, Sandi has combined her research with the day-to-day at Churchill to build an amazing program. Every single part of the school day has purpose-thought goes into every decision,” said Laura Pollnow Bryan, an alumna, president of the school’s Board of Trustees, and parent of two Churchill students.
“For parents who know the Wilson program, and those who are just becoming familiar with it, the fact that we have certified trainers and programs is a big deal – a differentiator,” she said. “That, combined with the other seven classes working in Wilson strategies throughout the day, makes Churchill a really unique, one-of-a-kind school.”
Pictured: Wilson Dyslexia Practitioner Evan Lefton is one of 47 Wilson certified instructors at Churchill Center & School in St. Louis, Mo.