Normally, you wouldn't expect an immediate melding of minds when some middle-school-age youngsters sit down to chat with a 72-year-old retired bourbon distillery executive.
But when Bill Samuels Jr., the former CEO of Maker's Mark, started describing his life experiences and his struggles in school, the kids nodded in immediate recognition. And when Samuels invited questions, they had so many that he ran out of time before answering them all.
That's because Samuels and these kids have one thing in common: They've all struggled with the frustration, discouragement and pain of dyslexia, the learning problem that makes it difficult to decode the written word.
Their conversation took place one morning last week at The Learning Center, a program for children with dyslexia operated by The Lexington School. School officials invited Samuels to meet with the children, thinking they would relate. And they did.
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Samuels described how he'd developed his own ways of compensating for dyslexia, a disability he really didn't know he had until he was grown. He told the students they're fortunate to live in a time when dyslexia is recognized and help is available.
"If I had only known I wasn't dumb ... but I didn't know what I was fighting," he said. "The first time I heard the word dyslexia, I didn't know what it was."
The Lexington School launched The Learning Center last fall as a "school-within-a-school" at its facilities on Lane Allen Road. The program began largely through encouragement from Brutus Clay, a real estate executive and Lexington School board member who has struggled with dyslexia.
The were 16 students the first year. Now enrollment is up to 28 in first through eighth grades, and that includes two youngsters whose families moved to Lexington from New Jersey and Memphis so their children could attend.
"When we were first planning our program, we visited some other schools, and I had directors there tell me that people would relocate here to come to our school," Learning Center Director Jane Childers said. "I was a little skeptical about that. But it happened right away."
The Learning Center program relies on what is called the Orton-Gillingham method of treating dyslexia. It includes lots of sophisticated use of what educators call "multisensory structured language" instruction, plus something as simple as old-fashioned cursive writing.
Students often begin their day with cursive drills that, Childers says, helps not only promote better handwriting, but helps with reading recognition, as well.
"It seems that just being able to keep the pencil on the page, rather than picking it up and putting it down over and over, helps them form letters and makes writing easier for them," she said.
Students in the program also work daily on prefixes and suffixes — such as re-, pre- and -ing — saying and spelling them, stating their meanings, and physically tracing them out. The repeated drills thus combine visual, auditory and kinesthetic or tactile components, which is what multisensory structured learning is all about.
Childers says children with dyslexia need many repetitions to make the information stick.
"Repetition is really a key for these kids," she said. "Scientific research has shown that repeated drills actually stimulate new connections in the brains of dyslexic children."
But it takes hard, concentrated work. The Learning Center has seven teachers, including Childers, each working with just four students at a time. Students spend part of their school day working on activities related to overcoming their dyslexia, then move to regular classrooms to join their peers. According to Childers, the expectation is that after two to three years in the dyslexia program, students will be ready to return to mainstream classes full-time.
Susie Psimer of Lexington is a believer. She says the The Learning Center program has been "life-changing" for her daughter, Anabeth, a sixth-grader. Anabeth enrolled in January after trying two other schools.
"In one semester she made more strides than she had in probably three years combined anywhere else," Susie Psimer said. "She was able to master skills that, frankly, other schools had told us might not be possible."
Childers said many children come into the program feeling frustrated and discouraged because they have not been able to thrive in other educational settings, often unable to master lessons that seemed to come easily for other children.
"They can get into a state of learned helplessness where they say, 'I can't do it, so why bother," she said. "But when they realize they can do things, it's a huge change. Just a tiny kernel of success can get them hooked, and they're on their way.
"It's a wonderful moment. They look up at you and their faces light up. ... It doesn't get any better than that."