Monday, June 22, 2009

Neuroplasticity and the Arrowsmith Program

There is an interesting article in today's Globe and Mail on a course offered by the Toronto Catholic School Board that is in danger of being eliminated. Called the Arrowsmith program, it is based on the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to change its structure and function:

Unconventional program for students with learning disabilities may be on the chopping block


From Monday's Globe and Mail, Monday, Jun. 22, 2009 03:33AM EDT

Through two hours of tears, frustration and repetition, Brendan Westermann would memorize his Grade 4 spelling list each week.

But when he woke up the next morning, the letters would be jumbled and later, in class, he'd fail his spelling test again.

"Usually I'd get half the words wrong," he said, wrinkling a bronzed nose speckled with freckles.

Brendan and his mother, Cora Westermann, sometimes ended up in tears following marathon cramming sessions. After Brendan went to bed, Ms. Westermann would surf the Internet searching for programs for children with learning disabilities.

Brendan was diagnosed as gifted-dyslexic, and it wasn't until two years later, in November, 2008, that Ms. Westermann and her husband, Paul Westermann, found a way to make the tears stop.

They started driving Brendan from their home in Uxbridge, Ont., to Toronto, where an alternative course called the Arrowsmith program is offered through the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Brendan, 12, began attending Grade 6 at Holy Spirit Catholic School, and performing daily exercises aimed at improving his working memory.

Before long, the crying stopped.

Brendan began finishing his homework in less time, reading books on his own for fun, and enjoying school.

"The program allowed him to bypass his problems and access his intelligence," Mr. Westermann said.

But when Brendan completes his first year at Holy Spirit's Arrowsmith program this week, it could be his last.

In order to balance next year's budget and bring the school board out of the red, the TCDSB is looking to cut a handful of programs, including Arrowsmith.

Overspending led to a takeover of the board last year by a government-appointed supervisor, and the fate of the program has slipped through the fingers of the board's trustees.

A provincial supervisory team will decide the fate of the program at a meeting Wednesday.

With a $1.5-million boost to the special-education budget expected next year, some trustees and parents are concerned that the future of the program may be decided more by ideology than by dollars.

About 65 students participated in the program this year at a cost of just over $201,265.

"It's a miniscule amount of the overall money we spend on special education," said John Del Grande, a TCDSB trustee.

"This program has become more of an ideological battle as a opposed to a money or a student value issue."

The Arrowsmith program represents a radical departure from traditional approaches, which generally involve compensatory methods such as letting a child with poor handwriting use a laptop, or a child with poor reading comprehension take a test orally.

The program is anchored in a concept called neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain's ability to change its structure and function.

Through daily activities aimed at exercising weak neural pathways - such as tracing shapes while wearing an eye patch or recalling symbols - Arrowsmith teachers believe students' brains can be trained to overcome 19 specific learning dysfunctions.

"I know of no program anywhere in the world right now that works as well," said Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and faculty member at the University of Toronto, and author of The Brain That Changes Itself, a bestselling book about neuroplasticity.
"There's no reason it can't be administered in public schools. They always have special education in public schools and the teachers only have to undergo a few weeks of training."

Frank Piddisi, superintendent of Special Services, said a $17-million special education deficit for the 2008-2009 academic year is one reason it can't be administered at the TCDSB.

Another reason, he said, is the fact that $175,715 of the $200,000 price tag goes toward licensing the seven schools that offer the Arrowsmith program.

"Without the licensing fee the cost would be incidental almost," he said.
The program was developed about 30 years ago by Barbara Arrowsmith Young.

Independent schools in Ontario, Saskatchewan and the United States offer the program but most of them carry a daunting price tag.

The private Toronto Arrowsmith school costs about $20,000 a year, a prohibitive amount for Debbie Clark, a single mother with two daughters.

Ms. Clark's eldest daughter, Victoria, is in her third year of the program at the TCDSB. Her mother describes the improvements in the 12-year-old's reading comprehension skills as "a miracle."

But without $20,000 a year to put her youngest, Amanda, in the private school, she fears her daughter may never get the opportunity her older sister has had if the TCDSB program closes.

"I really feel that if Amanda doesn't go through Arrowsmith, with her anger and her anxiety [in the classroom], I'm very scared for her future," Ms. Clark said. "I think the program should be available to everyone. These are our kids, they are our future, it does fix their brains and we can't put a price tag on them."

"The bottom line is that the board has to balance the budget," said Emmy Milne, a spokeswoman for the TCDSB. She added that the Arrowsmith program isn't being targeted, and other important programs may get the axe.

The Westermanns are prepared to take out a loan and commute to an Arrowsmith school in Peterborough in order to continue Brendan's education.

"I think it means that it gives him equal opportunity compared to other kids in the classroom and that's all I want for him, equal opportunities, not special accommodations," Ms. Westermann said.

"If Brendan wants to be an astronaut or a bricklayer I just want him to be able to lay bricks or fly jet planes just like anybody else would," Mr. Westermann said.

Brain-training drills
Arrowsmith students within the Toronto Catholic District School Board dedicate about half the school day to the academic curriculum, and the other half to brain-training exercises. The program is built upon the concept that students can overcome their learning dysfunctions by exercising the weakest parts of their brains.

Students improve their ability to relate symbols by reading multi-hand clocks that appear on a computer screen. Each of the clock's hands mark fractions of a second, seconds, minutes, hours up through centuries and so on. Students are challenged to read up to hands on more clocks with increasing accuracy over shrinking periods of time.

Students are asked to wear an eye patch and trace foreign letters and symbols. The patch is worn over the left eye, which communicates directly with the right hemisphere of the brain. This helps the exercise target the brain's left hemisphere for fine-motor skill and symbol recognition.

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