As you travel the rural connector Maryland Route 543 in Harford County near Interstate 95, you pass a parcel of pasture land that once was home of one of the greatest thoroughbred stallions in Maryland. “What a horse he was for the Bonifaces,” David Pons, owner of Country Life Farm, said of Deputed Testamony. “He was the tail wind that put it all together for them. After he won the Preakness, he changed their lives.” Deputed Testamony shocked the thoroughbred horse racing world when he won the Preakness as a 14-1 long shot on a muddy track at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 21, 1983.
The same patch of land 36 years later where Deputed Testamony once grazed continues to change lives today. Not the Boniface family but over 100 children every year. It is the home of the Highlands School, a unique K-12 academy catering to students with learning challenges like dyslexia and ADHD. The Highlands mission states, “we instill hope and confidence in our students by fostering a positive and nurturing learning environment. We focus on teaching our students methods to help them realize their strengths, overcome frustrations, and achieve academic and social success.” The 18-acre parcel is now the home of a state-of-the-art campus tailored to the needs of its students.
Principal Dr. Phil Piercy shares some of the other qualities that differentiate this private, independent institution from others, “we operate in small groups of 2-4 students for three periods a day—math, reading comprehension, and phonics; these are not “pull out” sessions. All lower and middle school students have these small groups. The remainder of the day our students study science, social studies, a special area classes like art, physical education, and music.” While providing a specialized approach to serving its constituency, Highlands is like any other school providing clubs like the National Honor society, extracurricular sports like Basketball and activities like dances and a Prom.
When asked what makes Highlands so special, teacher Rhonda McGarry stated it is “our ability to target our students’ education to their unique needs in a structured way, bringing them feelings of success and confidence.” Dr. Piercy is proud of his faculty and staff stating, “our people are not only subject area experts but provide each child with learning and life skills. We have a 35-minute block of time each day that focuses specifically on Executive Function (EF) skills—planning, organizing, time management, task initiation, self-monitoring, perspective taking, etc. This is complemented with the Hands-on-Highlands program—tech arts opportunities every Friday Students rotate each quarter through one of 4 modules: Growing Greater (agriculture/gardening and we have a greenhouse); Tasting Success (cooking/kitchen); Building Today (woodshop); and Lego Robotics.”
Dyslexia, ADHD and other language-based learning differences are common educational challenges that all teachers encounter in their classrooms. It is estimated that 15-20% of the population exhibits some form of dyslexia. Recent research says that another 11% of American children have ADHD. This means that, on average, elementary school teachers can have 6 to 10 students in their class that exhibit some form of dyslexia or ADHD. The number is even higher for for middle and high school teachers. If the goal as educators to meet the needs of all their students, then they must find ways to assist those with these learning differences. The Highlands School excels at providing these students with the facilities, methods, experience and passion to succeed.
The key to helping a student with dyslexia is early detection. According to the International Dyslexia Association: If children who are dyslexic get effective phonological training in Kindergarten and 1st grade, they will have significantly fewer problems in learning to read at grade level than do children who are not identified or helped until 3rd grade. Coupling this with an environment like the Highlands can provide many children the opportunity to transition to high schools, colleges and jobs equipped to be successful.
Gone are the days when the property was roamed by race horses but the legacy of “changing lives” remains. The silks of the Boniface racing farm, Bonita Farms, hang in the school lobby as a lasting memory and the mascot of the school is a Horse and their name is the Trailblazers as a tribute to the memory of the great Deputed Testamony.