Rebecca Elias, Principal, Summit Point School

RebeccaE 

 

What attracted you to this particular principal’s role?

This isn’t so much of a “role” for me, because as I say so often, this is my life! It was my vision and dream to make the much-needed changes to the education landscape for vulnerable/underserved neuro-diverse learners. In fact, when my research journey began, starting a school was not the intended outcome, nor to become a principal. However, because I developed the idea of Summit Point, and trained in the specialist intervention/remediation methods, I had to be at the helm. Starting the school was inevitably a process of trial and error. There was no instruction manual, I had very little access to collegial support in Auckland, or New Zealand, so it’s fair to say it was a (very) bumpy ride at the beginning. I had to develop some thick skin, fast!

Although every day, I wake up with the same motivation and belief in this mission. I am excited and inspired by the changes we make in the lives of children and families, and the difference we make by being a wonderful option for learning in New Zealand. When I see our kids creating aromatherapy products for calm mindfulness, or kombucha for gut health, or beeswax wraps for a sustainable planet, when I see the accelerated progress they are gaining in literacy and maths – when I see the glow they have from discovering (or rediscovering) themselves, when I hear parents exclaim that they “have our child back” – all the hard work, all the late nights and all the courage is so worth it.

 

How would you describe your school?

Thoughtful, responsive, necessary, creative, holistic, brave! We opened our doors in 2017 as the nation’s first registered, full curriculum school for dyslexic learners. We are designed for students who think big, who have extraordinary imaginations and strengths, and highly developed oral language skills, but are not yet reaching their potential. Despite external support such as tutoring, working with therapists, huge effort and the desire to achieve, they just aren’t keeping up. Students with neurodiverse learning profiles require a more considered and thoughtful approach in the classroom, which is what we offer at SPS.

Summit Point School’s major difference is our students all share many commonalities, therefore, their feelings of isolation from their peers reduce and their confidence develops. What we do is tap into useful methods of embedding knowledge, as well as making the learning meaningful, interactive and positive. Our small classes allow our teachers to measure children’s needs and achievements from an understanding of what’s best for our students as individuals, instead of from a generalised attitude telling us where they should be at their chronological age.

We have developed our own Summit Conscious Language Approach, where we have seen incredible progress across all curriculum strands, and significantly in reading, writing and spelling. This instruction provides a structured, systematic and cumulative approach to explicitly and diagnostically teaching literacy skills for automaticity. This approach not only helps students with dyslexia – it is effective for all readers. We blend internationally-recognised, research-based practices with our unique forward-thinking curriculum, where children become empowered to find their authentic selves, their own imagined place in this new world and the remarkable difference that they can make, if they are allowed to believe.

 

What do you hope to achieve through your leadership/what are your future ambitions for the school?

I hope to continue to inspire and educate more staff, students and families about the remarkable opportunities in life for neurodiverse children, once they are “seen, heard, supported and empowered”. Our campuses will grow, our unique curriculum (through our professional development courses and workshops) will reach more into mainstream settings, and I have plans for a purpose-built school (need to find funding for this) – a place and space where our students are able to explore a wider range of hands-on activities and subject areas. I also want for us to eventually serve more senior year levels, so they do not have to worry about where to go next, once they move beyond Year 10.

 

Can you briefly describe your career pathway?

I was teaching technology and visual arts at a secondary school, when in 2008 I attended a professional development presentation about ADHD. There was a woman speaking and it felt like she was telling my story. Almost all of the “classic” traits of ADHD, I recognised in myself.

That early morning session set me on a path that I couldn’t ignore. It opened up a new world of learning and I began my mission to advocate for the many young people who live in a world where they too are misunderstood.

Leaving teaching to study for a Masters Degree, choosing an educational field that was also seriously misunderstood – children with diverse and complex learning profiles, such as dyslexia – I wanted to find out how to change this.

I travelled overseas during the course of my studies and was fortunate enough to be supported and mentored by some of the best in the world of education and dyslexia. Over two consecutive years, I spent time at The Gow School in New York who have led the way in educating students with dyslexia and other language-based learning difficulties since 1926. Peter Gow Jr founded the school in a visionary effort to rethink the learning process.

 

Were there any particularly enlightening moments or inspirational people who have helped set you on your way?

Seeing how The Gow School was able to create a sense of empowerment and connectedness, I knew it was something we needed here in New Zealand. Fiercely motivated by The Gow’s culture and success, I designed a week-long holiday programme for children with dyslexia (2016). Our One Day School began shortly after in a small inner-city house with six students. Then our full curriculum school grew from there (with lots of hard work).

Inspiring people include:

  • Bradley Rogers and Joe Gullo from The Gow School
  • Sir Michael Friedlander who supports many valuable causes
  • Sungalina Lee and Sandi Tadaki from Assets School in Hawaii
  • Ngaio Merrick who was a mentor for me before I started the school
  • Women like Ngaere Thorogood who was a trailblazer long before my time and spent much of her career advocating and changing things up for kids like SPS kiddos
  • Tanya Thorogood who never ceases to amaze me with her motivation and aroha for kids
  • My own beautiful children, who have been incredibly understanding of how important this mission has been and continues to be. It has been over ten years now since this journey began, and I am so proud of them for accepting how much of my time I need to share with other people’s children to make Summit Point School a success
  • And my own mother, who taught me the value of standing tall and advocating for those in need.

 

How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

I strongly believe in a values-based leadership approach with my team and students at Summit. It is also essential to me that I have a strength-based lens, where students are aware of their abilities, potential and magic, rather than a deficit-based mindset, where “fixing” or “filling in gaps” is the norm, because our kids aren’t broken – they are amazing. In doing that, I take an holistic view on how our school operates, where our world is seen as a sustainable precious resource that our kids will inherit, with a rich range of possibilities not limited to academic outcomes. I try to approach everything in a positive, responsive and brave manner, always open to listening and learning, with an eye to the future, because that’s how outcomes are best achieved.

 

Can you share your thoughts about independent education – in New Zealand and internationally?

We must have a choice in where we send our precious children to school. It’s a long time in their lives to be in a place where they feel displaced. Internationally, parents have options, but New Zealand parents don’t have as many options or there is a pervasive and unhelpful attitude that independent/private education is elite, so the perception is that they must be wealthy to attend. Having a child with sensitive, specialist, unique needs is not in the parent planning handbook, so the fact is that this is not a choice – effective learning is a human right! Therefore, there has to be a better solution, because mainstream schools simply do not meet the emotional, social or academic needs of all children. This is a fact, not a feeling.

 

What do you see as the benefits of working at an independent school?

There are so many things to love about an independent school. The creative scope, flexibility, a culture of love, small size, unique design, amazing opportunities for staff to broaden their views, the chance to break out of “the system”, professional learning in new ways – the list is long and broad. But maybe most importantly, we have the freedom and space to be more aware of learners’ needs and how to meet them. Kids are not just a number in a pie chart.

 

What do you see as the benefits for students of attending an independent school?

Our parents are really positive about how an independent school can change their child’s life. From offering cutting-edge programmes that mainstream schools can’t, to small class sizes and individualised support, superb pastoral care and flexible curriculum design, independent schools offer choice, chance and change. Students really get the opportunity to become their best selves in an holistic, creative and dynamic environment.