Before he retires, Ben Shifrin wants to do his part to improve public education, he says, starting with some long overdue support for teachers.
Shifrin is in his 16th year leading Jemicy School, an independent school in Owings Mills that was the first school to be accredited for dyslexia education in the country. Its national reputation was strong enough to lure a curious Shifrin from California for an interview more than a decade and a half ago. He wasn’t sure he wanted to make the move until he found himself inspired by the dedication of Jemicy’s teachers.
Since Shifrin’s arrival, Jemicy has grown from 143 to 380 students, and Shifrin has used the school’s successes to educate teachers around the country and to advocate for more training in both private and public schools.
This fall, Jemicy announced a partnership with Notre Dame of Maryland University (NDMU) to offer graduate certificates in teaching methods for students with dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia.
“Jemicy really wants to share its knowledge,” Shifrin says. “The methodologies that we use are just good education. We can make a difference — we know how to do that.”
Those methodologies include multi-sensory classrooms, collaborative learning, curriculum that teaches kids how to retain and retrieve knowledge without memorizing, learning through experience, and even recess. All these techniques are used at Jemicy to help students with learning differences, but Shifrin notes they could easily be incorporated in a classroom with students who process information in more expected ways.
He uses the telephone as an analogy: “Compare a phone from 1940 to a phone from today,” he says, pointing to all the possibilities now at a fingertip’s reach. “Now compare a classroom from the 1940s to today. The classrooms still look similar.”
Changing the look of a classroom and the learning inside begins with teachers, he says. But teachers have not been supported enough for this effort, particularly in public school systems.
“Teachers enjoy their jobs when they feel they are making a difference,” says Shifrin. “But then we don’t train them. I wouldn’t go to a doctor who isn’t trained.”
At NDMU, Sister Sharon Slear, dean of the education school, says faculty and students are “very happy to be working with Jemicy. They are the authority.”
Recently, education graduates have been telling Slear that they are seeing more students in their classrooms who are experiencing difficulties with reading, she says. Some special education teachers have even said about “40 percent of their students have reading issues.”
Not all of these students will be diagnosed with dyslexia, but the techniques used to help students with dyslexia also will help them, Slear says.
“We want to give teachers strategies that they can incorporate into their regular teaching,” she says.
NDMU’s 12-credit graduate certificate program will begin in spring 2018 and classes will be offered at both NDMU and Jemicy.
“I know school systems are asking for this and we want our teachers to be prepared,” Slear says.
Back at Jemicy, Shifrin has one more goal. The former vice president of the International Dyslexia Association once advocated for college level reading instruction for dyslexic students. He currently serves on the Governor’s Task Force on Dyslexia and wants to see this country’s education system invest more in math education.
“Socially, it’s not OK to say, ‘I can’t read,’” Shifrin says. “But you can say, ‘I’m not good at math,’ and that is accepted.”
This, he believes, is why the U.S. lags behind other industrial nations in math education. Jemicy has added a goal of improving math education to its mission statement. At a national level, more research needs to be done on how a student’s brain considers and computes math, Shifrin says.
His final lesson is that humans love to learn. “Think of first-graders going off to school. They have smiles on their faces,” he says.
Those smiles shouldn’t go away, he believes. “School shouldn’t be a burden for anyone.”