Jennifer and Eddie Kesner struggled to find the perfect learning environment for their daughters — especially for their oldest, Lily.
It took three separate recommendations before they gave real consideration to New Way Academy. The east Phoenix private school is a long way from the Kesners’ Mesa home. Impressed after just a few months by the results for Lily, and then for Molly and Olivia, they eventually enrolled all five of their daughters — now ranging in age from 8 to 11.
“They’re doing well,” says their mom, who also volunteers at New Way. Kesner says her girls — all of whom were adopted and have unique needs and learning differences ranging from cerebral palsy to ADHD — love that they share a school campus. Mom watched her daughters go from largely thinking of school as a chore to “school being a place where they go to be themselves and be loved and cared for for who they are. A place where they just feel comfortable,” she says.
In addition to the campus feel — amenities include a library with cozy reading spaces, a large playground with buddy benches, green courtyards and comfortable classrooms — it is the low student-to-teacher ratios and speech and occupational therapies during the school day that have made a big difference for their family.
The girls even have time for extracurricular activities, and all five got parts in “Cinderella,” last fall’s school play. Chloe was cast as the lead. Their dad joked that so many of the girls’ friends and family members were coming see them onstage there wouldn’t be room for anyone else.
“For us to be able to provide something cohesive for them as a group was very rare,” says Kesner, who shares this advice to other parents of kids with learning differences: “If they’re looking for a spot to care for the whole child, this is where they need to be — a place where they are cared about emotionally, socially, academically. You can feel the love. Every child does better when they know they’re loved.”
A new type of school
New Way started 50 years ago because two local moms were determined to find just this kind of environment for their own sons with learning differences. Jeanette Bowling and Evelyn Wiseman wanted a school that would help kids thrive, and they wouldn’t give up. First, they helped establish the Arizona Association for Children with Learning Disabilities. And five decades ago this month, the women started New Way School in a free space at a Scottsdale church. For years, these dedicated women took no salaries.
New Way has grown from four original students in 1968 to 280 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, supported today by a staff of 90.
From the beginning, New Way has always focused on speech and language. Wiseman — who suffered as a dyslexic, dysgraphic student but earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Arizona — made it her mission to study new teaching methods for reading, including the Orton-Gillingham method and alphabetic phonics.
Today, New Way supports a range of special needs, especially learning challenges that include dyslexia, ADHD, anxiety and executive functioning issues.
In the late 1960s when New Way began, there were no Arizona State University students studying special education, and little was understood about learning differences. New Way eventually became a training ground for ASU’s special ed students and over the years was a refuge for students some had labeled unteachable.
To say that Bowling is astounded that New Way is now home to nearly 300 students in Phoenix is an understatement. She is most proud that New Way has kept its small teacher-to-student ratio and that it’s a place where students are kind to one another. She laments that learning disabilities are still too often misunderstood and under-diagnosed, which is why New Way thrives.
“The children have normal IQs, but have terrible trouble in school for one reason or another,” Bowling says, sharing stories of a once-angry child who started smiling on his first day at New Way, and another who stopped Bowling’s grown children at a restaurant to say that New Way had saved his life.
Bowling summed up the years with her cofounder Evelyn Wiseman this way: “Evie and I had a lot of fun … If we only helped one life, it would have been enough, but we did help quite a number of children. We were essentially all heart when we were running that school.”
A new school campus
Abbey Ross is New Way’s current executive director. Since 2012, she has been co-running New Way with its Head of School Michael Walker. Ross found her way here in 2005 as a teacher who gravitated toward kids with learning differences.
“My plan was to go to law school,” admits Ross, who grew up in Oregon and also had no plans to live in the desert, but was placed in Arizona through the Teach for America program. “I was raised by two teachers. I saw how much my parents worked and how little money we always had. … I thought, ‘I’ll teach for two years.’ ”
When she stepped in the classroom, Ross was a natural, and she was hooked. “The kids I gravitated to were the kids who learned differently,” and who struggled to fit in, Ross says. “I literally Googled ‘special education Arizona’ [and thought] how cool would that be [to teach] where no one was different. … I still feel that New Way is Disneyland for kids who struggle in school.”
For its first 26 years, New Way stayed housed in free church facilities. When Ross found it, New Way had moved into a former Scottsdale medical building, where it remained from 1994 to 2013. Then, the current campus became available.
“As much as we loved that [Scottsdale] campus, we knew the school could be so much more than it was,” Ross says, explaining how every summer they were spending money on basic repairs to rooms not really meant to house students. Ross and Walker envisioned a campus with amenities like any typical school — a school mascot painted on the walls, sports teams and clubs, a cafeteria and a school dance.
“I think what brings me the most energy is that New Way provides a whole school experience for students who have felt different a good chunk of their lives,” Ross explains. “Here, every kid can shine. You can be in student government, you can be on the football team, you can go to prom.”
Ross says the student population has doubled in the past five years. Eighty percent of students get financial aid. And teacher turnover isn’t a problem.
“When [students] come in, they’re broken,” Ross says. “Teachers have told them they’re lazy or they’re [not smart. Here] they have the gift of building them back up. I can’t even imagine working at a different school. This place is magic in a bottle. We don’t hire [many] new teachers, because no one leaves. The vibe here is so positive and happy. I feel like every school should have that.”
And New Way’s bulldog mascot is one of the first things you see.
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