Hallie Rojeski, head of school at The John Crosland School in Charlotte, NC, shares how her school transforms the lives of students by helping them belong, believe, and succeed.

“When I got to John Crosland, things got a lot easier for me. It’s incredible how the school recognizes everyone’s differences and makes it a safe place, a just place, and a nice place for everyone to feel loved.” – John Crosland middle school student, grade 6

This statement comes from a newly enrolled student at John Crosland, one who has been plucked from his usual school routine, which regardless of the challenges, he was used to. He can now clearly articulate that he is able to breathe, relax, and smile at a school where he feels safe and loved.

Safe and loved. He belongs.

At John Crosland, we embrace and understand that the children walking through our door each day have a myriad of challenges like executive functioning weaknesses, short-term memory deficits, and heightened sensory responses, all on top of academic and learning-related vulnerabilities that compete for their brain’s attention every second of the day. One of the toughest competitors for brain-space is executive functioning. Executive Functioning Age (EFA) greatly impacts independence and most of our students have an EFA that is 2-5 years below their age and grade level. We understand that students aren’t immediately ready for independently completing projects, cooperative learning, and solving problems.

When we have kids walk through our doors with these challenges, and after day one hear comments from parents and students such as this, we know we’re doing a few things right. “Jackson has been ‘giddy’ about school, and I have never been able to use that word before. He loves Ms. Michaels, and she makes him feel confident about his schoolwork and he has not complained one time (which is NOT the norm). Jackson told me that a boy asked him to be his friend and he was beaming about it.”

In larger school settings, not every child can find their voice, fill a leadership role, or make the cut on a basketball team. However, at a small school like ours, we provide all students with opportunities to grow their strengths. Opportunities grow strengths and talents, and strengths and talents turn into confidence.

Meeting each child where they are is one of many strengths at Crosland. Rather than a teacher altering the 5th grade curriculum to meet the needs of an individual child, in lower school, we create groups of students with common learning goals and design the curriculum and lessons to meet the needs of each group. Instead of a child having to struggle to fit into a “5th grade square peg,” they flourish in groups of like-minded peers, gaining immediate “hey, I feel that way too!” support. Peer and teacher support breeds small successes and positive affirmations, and small successes breed confidence in learning.

As confidence in learning grows, our upper school students shine. Knowing that you’re walking into a place of teacher understanding, unique-talents encouragement, and social status confidence allows our 9th-12th graders to bloom. Our upper school students help guide student life for the entire school. Teen Lead and LIFE classes organize spirit weeks, promote Ninja Field Day, design the Student Annual Fund Capital Campaign, plan car wash fundraisers, learn about debt, credit, and everything “adulting.”  It isn’t uncommon in our hallways for an upper school student to step in and encourage or mentor a middle school or lower school student.

“At JCS I have the opportunity to tutor fellow students to help build my confidence and use my strengths in math to build upon possible future careers.” – Sarah, Grade 10.

Confidence can lead to planning for and predicting a future path. “I am a future actor or journalist. As an upper school student, I have the opportunity to be dual enrolled at CPCC (Central Piedmont Community College). I am almost finished with my first course, public speaking. This is a great challenge for me and a strength of mine.” – Abigail, Grade 10.

No child should have to adapt to fit the neurotypical world. We like to join them in their world. We celebrate each child as they come to us and as they make the journey growing into unique young adults. Our students don’t fit the mold, and we strive to allow them space to continue to grow into themselves without having to conform or worry that others will judge. We celebrate differences and want each child to own their divergent thinking. Does this mean wearing a nonbinary flag to school on pride day, sporting a tail because you like imagining your spirit animal, bringing your comfort rat to school because visiting him at a break helps make your day go smoother, stepping in the back of the classroom to jump and flap while you are excited about big plans coming up, or mispronouncing a word while reading aloud and not having a single student snicker? Yes, it does, and we’re proud of them for showing us their world.

Hallie Rojeski is the head of school at The John Crosland School in Charlotte, NC. Hallie earned a bachelor’s degree in special education and a master’s degree in low incidence disorders from East Carolina University. She also holds a post-master’s certificate in school administration from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is North Carolina certified in elementary education (K-6), and special education (K-12), and a Wilson practitioner. she is proud to serve on the board of North Carolina International Dyslexia Association.

The John Crosland School in Charlotte, NC, celebrating over 40 years of excellence, is a K-12 independent school dedicated to students with learning differences, ADHD, Autism, and the many combinations thereof that can cause challenges and frustrations in a typical education setting.