When George Watts Hill discovered his daughter had a learning disability, the philanthropist and businessman decided to do something for her and for the millions of children similarly afflicted. With his own money, he founded the Hill Center, where his daughter and others could receive a specialized education to learn how to deal with their disabilities and excel in school.
Until the Hill Center was founded in 1977, children with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder had few options in Durham—basically, they could attend one of the expensive boarding schools in the northeast or stick it out in a public school system that was clueless as to how to teach them.
With a specialized curriculum, the Hill Center has educated over 1,000 students in 70 schools from seven North Carolina counties over the last 24 years. Students now attend the Hill Center for half of their school day, then spend the rest of the day in regular classes at their local school.
Hill Center teachers use what they call “multi-sensory structured teaching.” This individualized, intensive remediation program assesses a student’s skill level, identifies deficiencies, and focuses on those areas in an attempt to bring children up to grade level. Teachers at the Hill Center—all of whom have a master’s degree or better and extensive experience in teaching learning disabled children—emphasize techniques such as systematic language, phonics, and study skills.
Dr. Shary Maskel, the director of the Hill Center, says taking a different approach to teaching has made the center not only unique, but also quite effective. “We teach kids to understand their learning difference and the things that would make them successful,” Maskel says. “We are committed to good instruction, to being innovative, and translating the best practices we have learned through our research into classroom use. By doing those things, we really can get to the nitty-gritty of teaching and do it effectively.”
Currently, the Hill Center enrolls 162 students in grades K-12, but the programs don’t stop there. Over the years, the center has developed a program for teachers to learn how to teach children with learning disabilities. More than 1,500 area teachers have been through the workshops. Maskel says that by educating so many teachers, their program is having an exponential effect on the kids themselves.
“That’s what we are about: helping [these children] achieve their full potential,” Maskel says. “We started to look at the numbers and multiply our effect, and if we reach a teacher who teaches 30-100 kids a day, we are really starting to reach a lot of kids out there, indirectly, but many more than the 160 kids that regularly attend the Hill Center.”
According to Maskel, many teachers have been able to attend the program only through scholarships. Tuition for students is $11,375, and prices vary for teachers, but much of that cost is covered by scholarships the school offers that run upward to three-quarters of the full tuition. Money from a $5 million capital campaign that ended a year ago provided for a new facility and additional scholarship funds, but faculty members still receive smaller paychecks than their colleagues in local public schools.
But even though money is an issue with both students and teachers, Maskel says that doesn’t hinder the message the Hill Center tries to get across.
“We are trying to get people to understand that these are really bright kids who just learn differently, and we really have to promote the importance of not losing these wonderful minds, just because they can’t be successful in a classroom of 28 kids,” says Maskel. “To be in a regular school and be successful in a science class or play football in a high school and come here for a half-day, that is really unique.”