Straight A’s: Orinda Academy Head Ron Graydon
The founder of Orinda Academy talks about how his school serves teens who would fall through the cracks in regular schools.
Orinda Academy Founder and Head Ron Graydon
Orinda Academy was established in 1982 to serve kids who don’t thrive in standard high schools and middle schools. Founder and Head Ron Graydon says the academy’s 90 students are bright and capable of doing well in school and in life, but some have ADHD, dyslexia or other “learning differences” that make it hard for them to engage in conventional classrooms. Others find large campuses and classes overwhelming.
Here, Graydon talks about how Orinda Academy has developed a college-prep curriculum that uses innovative classroom strategies, one-on-one attention, extracurricular programs and international travel opportunities that engage kids with various learning styles.
What students do you serve?
We’re a college preparatory school that works with students who have moderate to mild learning style differences. Sometimes we get confused with other schools that deal with kids with Asperger’s syndrome or autism. We don’t take kids with emotional or behavioral problems or students with serious disabilities. We’re not equipped to handle that.
How is Orinda Academy different?
We train teachers in how to provide a multi-sensory education and engaging classroom learning techniques, so that it’s not just a lecture, because some students have auditory processing problems or visual procession problems. When we do tests, it doesn’t always involve a traditional multiple-choice test. Students have the option of presenting a debate, a poster, or a power point presentation, just something that shows they understand the material.
We also try not to overwhelm them with homework. They have a substantially challenging program, but it’s not overwhelmingly stressful. They don’t need to do four hours of homework a night. Here at the school, we provide class time and study hall time, where they can do their work.
The small class size is important, isn’t it?
Classes have an average of about eight students in them. In a small environment, each teacher knows the students’ strengths and weaknesses, and they can make sure they are meeting their needs. Whatever it takes to help them be successful. That’s really the focus of what we do.
What are some of the basic skills you instill in students?
We offer a holistic education. We’re interested in personal growth. We obviously care about their academic success, but are they good communicators? Do they contribute to the world as a whole, to their local community?
We offer support for their emotional needs, as well as learning needs. For such a small school, we have a diverse curriculum. We have art and music and chorus and drama.
How do you use technology?
Students are used to things on a screen and having that ability to present things that way, so every student here has a computer, a laptop or an iPad. We have students who as sophomores started their own computer businesses. They have since gone to college and are engineers and computer scientists, and they still have their company. Another student sells apps to iTunes.
What other unique programs do you have?
We travel. We go all over Europe. We’ve been to Russia a few times and to Ecuador. When we went to the Galapagos we did studies on the marshlands. Then we went to Costa Rica to help preserve sea turtles.
All the traveling sounds wonderful. Why do you do it?
We travel to have hands on experiences with what students are studying, to experience other cultures, increase global awareness and learn more about the natural and human environment. Students can be immersed in foreign languages with their native culture, see some of the most famous and important museums, icons, artwork and architecture in the world.
If you could wave a magic wand and fix anything in education what would it be?
It’s generally a conservative thing, and that’s not where I fall, but it would be vouchers for private schools. If it costs $12,000 to educate students in a public school, we’ll give you $12,000 to go anywhere you want.
In all schools there needs to be smaller classes, and more personalized attention. Education needs to be geared to individual needs, and it needs to be engaging and adaptable to different learning styles. There shouldn’t be any tenure. Bad teachers should go—but before that happens there should be training and professional development, so teachers know how to run engaging classrooms that meet the needs of students.