Going Beyond the Labels

Why specialized education should be the new norm.

By Molly McManus, Photos by Dustin Meyer

Many in the educational arena believe the one-size-fits-all method for educating children is no longer a viable approach. Education is complicated, and children’s learning styles vary. While schools work to evolve with the times and cater to the success of their students, many students are not receiving the optimal education they need and deserve.

Children are frequently assigned to a category derived from what is deemed “normal.” Whether they are labeled as being ADHD, gifted or dyslexic, these divisions are inevitably assigned. While it’s important to identify learning differences to know how best to serve children, the quick fixes need to be abandoned in exchange for systems that address children as whole beings needing holistic approaches to learning.

Luckily, in Austin, there are many people bridging varied educational gaps to not only help children be successful, but also engage their families. Austin Woman spotlights three local women who are working to go beyond the labels to create innovative learning environments and programs for children.


Laura Steinbach

Rawson Saunders School

“Where dyslexic meets extraordinary,” is the inspiring tagline of the Rawson Saunders School. The school serves grades 1 through 10 and is the only full-curriculum school in Central Texas for children with dyslexia. “Most of our [students] have come to us having struggled, having experienced failure. School wasn’t working out for them,” explains Head of School Laura Steinbach. “It’s not that they aren’t smart. It’s that the approach to teaching in many school environments is not a match for their learning style. … They think it’s about them. Often, they come broken, as if they don’t have what other kids have or they’re not as intelligent as other kids. I love watching them see that they were wrong, and then ensuring that they get the education they deserve—and that every single one of us would have wanted.”

This is what drives the mission of Rawson Saunders: ensuring students receive excellent education despite their learning differences. Taking a multifaceted approach, the school provides small class sizes, supports teachers’ autonomy and has departmentalized instruction according to teacher expertise, even at the elementary-school level. Steinbach constantly examines what’s working and what’s not, and allows teachers to alter curriculum when it’s not reaching students. To meet this need, teachers must work together across content areas.

“If [the student is] studying something in math that they can be working on in science and in art and in woodshop, the kids have a very connected understanding of what the world is like,” Steinbach says. “They understand that things don’t happen in compartments or in isolation.”

But to guarantee students can see the big picture, Steinbach emphasizes the importance of providing a safe learning environment.

“We want [students] to learn the greatest benefit of all is working hard, that what you get on the other side is an achievement that you could never have gotten before,” she says. “In order to introduce them to that, we have to create an experience that makes it safe for them to learn it. I definitely don’t see our job as making life easy for kids. I see it as making kids feel safe emotionally so that they can take the risks that are required for them to learn.”

Through the tree-studded campus of Rawson Saunders, colorful portable doors lead to the elementary-level classrooms. Photos of famous people with dyslexia grace the windows— Whoopi Goldberg, Winston Churchill, Steven Spielberg and Orlando Bloom, to name a few— demonstrating that just because students here have a learning difference doesn’t mean they can’t be successful. Students walk from portable to portable between classes, much like middle- or high-school students. This gives them a chance to stretch their legs and breathe some fresh air, and also builds their confidence as they develop independency.

Because of the growing interest in Rawson Saunders and the profound effects it has been proven to show in childhood development, the school has not only outgrown its space (hence the portables), but there’s also a long waiting list, something Steinbach is addressing through fundraising, locating new facilities and hiring the right people. She runs the school much like a business and sees it as one that can be reproducible, not just for more dyslexic students, but for every student.

“Modeling what can be done in schools is not just about getting the academics right; it is about getting the culture right, getting the environment right,” she says.

One of the ways in which she’s done this is expanding the school from a two-year program to one that now serves 10 grade levels, ensuring a certain level of quality. There’s also a major focus on nutrition, with fresh lunches comprised of organic, local ingredients sourced from onsite gardens or farmers markets. But it doesn’t stop at the students.

Rawson Saunders also has a wellness program for the health of the faculty, vital in maintaining the overall excellence of the education. Rawson Saunders is recognized nationally as a leader in innovative teaching methods tailored specifically to the way students with dyslexia learn. The school nurtures students’ strengths while addressing needs and moving beyond mainstream approaches, like standardized testing.

“Once you have students take [standardized tests], then teachers start teaching to the test. And then you kind of destroy education. The fix isn’t easy and it’s definitely not about a test,” Steinbach says. “It’s not that we don’t have an education expectation for [students]. We want them to get the knowledge. We also know that they’re not going to get to the knowledge just because we want them to. If they’re not getting it the way we’re teaching it, then we may need to teach in a different way. Eventually, the students build momentum because their confidence increases and then they’re more capable of learning faster and making connections with other things.”

Rawson Saunders is unique in its implementation of childhood learning and development, yet it is something every family would want for their child, regardless of the learning style. Providing transformational education, Steinbach hopes her school can serve as an example of how every child can embrace differences and see it as a gift in order to meet their greatest potential. rawsonsaunders.org 


Adriana Rodriguez

Austin Eco Bilingual School

Most teachers are passionate about providing quality education and are committed to doing so. Adriana Rodriguez took that commitment to an incredible new level when, in 2008, she and her husband sold their home so she could continue to operate a much-needed resource in the community, the Austin Eco Bilingual School.

Based on the Reggio Emilia Approach, AEBS is a Spanish-immersion school started in 2007, its goal being to shape students into global citizens through bilingual education. In addition to becoming bilingual and biliterate in Spanish and English, students at AEBS’ four locations begin developing proficiency in Mandarin Chinese and French, allowing them to be able to communicate with nearly 40 percent of the world’s population by the time they reach middle school.

Recently, AEBS became an International Baccalaureate-accredited school for children 3 to 12 years old, which furthers AEBS’ commitment to high-quality, challenging, international education. Rodriguez believes the classroom should be a place of innovation and genuine learning that is relevant to our diverse world. AEBS provides inclusive and transdisciplinary education, going beyond traditional subject areas and integrating learning concepts throughout a child’s day.

“The classroom is the third teacher,” Rodriguez says. “We make sure the classroom is full of discovery, exploration and experiences.”

AEBS embraces the idea that everyone has different learning styles, but that doesn’t mean they need to be segregated or removed from a classroom.

“It’s treated as inclusive education,” Rodriguez explains, noting that at AEBS, teachers see differences as something natural that further students’ molding into global citizens, helping them to recognize the differences and learn how to work together.

“If we work in collaboration with different groupings and not care so much about testing—because we all the time say we need to make sure every single child learns this many words and reads at this type of pace, and education is not like that,” she says.

Through inquiry-based learning, Rodriguez and AEBS are teaching the importance of personal, physical, mental, social and spiritual health, to look at one’s self to better understand the world and its rich diversity. There’s a huge focus on community and giving back, and Rodriguez herself volunteers by training educators outside the AEBS community.

“[At AEBS,] you can see a community and that community is a family and that family helps the school to grow. When you see that setting, it inspires you,” Rodriguez says.

With three school locations in Austin and one in Houston, AEBS is expanding its reach and looking to bring its global approach to learning to as many children and families as possible. austinbilingualschool.com 


Sheena McFeely

ASL Nook

“More than 90 percent of deaf children are born into hearing families,” Sheena McFeely says.

As a deaf child in a hearing family, she experienced firsthand the lack of exposure to role models and the need to develop a healthy identity as a deaf person.

“When my parents, fortunately, brought ASL and deaf people in my life, my world opened up…conversations became deeper and broader,” she says. “There is no doubt I wanted the same experience for every deaf child.”

As she started her family, raising two daughters, one deaf and one hearing, she wanted to create a space in which deaf children had a place to see and relate to people like them, and also connect families in supporting the natural language of the deaf child. She created the educational website ASL Nook, which features videos of her, her two young daughters and her husband effectively teaching ASL in a fun and interactive way.

“ASL Nook was born to be a place where two walls meet—two worlds meet—to learn a new language and culture from a deaf family, my family, that is, online,” McFeely says.

After launching the site, McFeely received attention from viewers throughout the world sharing how the website had transformed their lives and the lives of their children, families and students. ASL Nook also began to get noticed by the likes of BuzzFeed, E Online, Mental Floss and The Huffington Post.

Favorite videos on the site include “Zoo Animals in ASL,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas in ASL,” “Makeup, hair accessories and jewelry in ASL” and “Emotions in ASL.” Not only are the videos captivating, engaging and informative, they’re also downright adorable, with McFeely’s 3- and 6-year-old daughters expressively signing and acting out various scenarios for viewers.

McFeely’s latest project is a children’s book, Shay & Ivy Beyond the Kingdom, set to become a series.

“The book was written to truly touch on how hard it is to be really you when society has expectations based on little girls being princesses,” she explains. “In other words, this book is about going beyond the labels,” much like ASL Nook.

“There are not enough shows like ours out there who [represent] our people, culture and language in its truest form,” she continues, noting the feedback from parents who, because of ASL Nook, have newfound hope for the potential of their children, as well as a place for their families to connect. “When a hearing viewer—be it an ASL student, parent or a stranger who just happens to land on our website—sees ASL Nook, they instantly relate. Our viewers love that we are a real family with a variety of signing styles who laughs, teases and teaches together…which makes ASL more engaging to learn.”

While ASL Nook is bridging the gap between hearing and deaf worlds, the website, at the end of the day, is a place to come together to learn, to share ideas, to celebrate difference and to have fun. aslnook.com