By MIA O’NEILL — Situated unassumingly atop a parking garage opposite the Prince George’s Plaza Metro station in Hyattsville, Chelsea School might go unnoticed but for a blue banner bearing its name that hangs from the garage entrance.
But inside, one forgets quickly that the place is squeezed between a clinic, a gym, and rows of vehicles. Brightly lit hallways decorated with student artwork lead from room to room, and teachers and students talk and joke freely and affectionately.
On Wednesday, Chelsea — a nonpublic day school for students in grades five through twelve with diagnosed reading and language disabilities and attention deficit disorders — hosted a “professional breakfast” and open house to give local educators, community leaders (including Hyattsville Mayor Candace Hollingsworth), and the general public an inside look at their programming.
It was also a chance for the school’s new co-heads, Kristal Weems-Bradner and Frank Mills — who took over this summer — to impress upon the Hyattsville community the importance of the school’s mission.
“Our commitment has always been to students who did not have the means to afford [traditional private school],” Mills said.
As a nonpublic school, Mills said, Chelsea is able to offer a significant number of scholarships through partnerships with public school systems. But they’d like to be able to offer more.
“That’s where we need your help,” Mills told visitors gathered in the school’s cafeteria. Weems-Bradner and Mills, both longtime members of the Chelsea faculty, stressed the school’s commitment to individually tailored teaching approaches and a supportive learning environment. “We’re not trying to fit students into our mold,” said Mills. “We’re trying to fit our resources into what works best for our kids.”
Both said the school aims to give each student a personal, nurturing education while preparing them for success beyond high school. “Our kids meet all the curricular requirements of [public school],” Mills said.
Visitors had the opportunity to tour the school and hear from parents and students about their Chelsea experiences.
A common theme was the school’s supportive atmosphere and the way it boosts kids’ self-esteem. Visitors to Chelsea often say that it “feels like a family,” Mills said. “That’s not accidental.” “If you don’t feel safe,” said Weems-Bradner, “how are you going to learn?”
Chase Yaculak, who has a form of dyslexia, came to Chelsea in middle school after struggling with large classes and limited teacher attention in public school. Now a sophomore hoping to study bioengineering in college, Yaculak said the personalized attention at Chelsea has helped him grow in both academic ability and confidence.
“When you’re actually able to see a teacher across the room, it does make a difference,” he said, adding that his largest class at Chelsea had just six students. The maximum number of students in any class is eight, according to Chelsea’s admissions guide.
Parents said they can see the difference. When Veda Russ’ daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia in seventh grade, she realized she needed to put her in private school. At her daughter’s old school, Russ said, she got individual reading assistance, but “it still didn’t help, because they never did go back to basics.”
At Chelsea, “every child in this school has a reading tutorial class,” Mills said. “And we focus on getting that right, because the most important aspect in every child’s day is the literary remediation they get.”
In addition to personalized reading instruction (plus regular core subjects including math, science, history and the creative arts), one of the primary skills Chelsea teaches is “executive functioning,” which includes organizing and time-management strategies.
According to the admissions guide, each student meets daily with a faculty advisor, who is able to assess the student’s executive functioning level and make adjustments accordingly. Advisors also help keep families in touch with their children’s progress.
Rik Goldman, who teaches advanced technology courses at Chelsea, said much of his curriculum (which includes web design and group collaborations on real-word projects like humanitarian software) demands “project-management” skills that he hopes will translate to their daily agendas and executive functioning repertoire.
The preparation is paying off. In the last two years, Chelsea had a 100 percent graduation rate. With a majority of graduates accepted to four-year and two-year colleges, Chelsea has sent students to the University of Virginia and Bowie State University, to name just a couple, Mills said. Others have found success in the workforce or by following their own paths. One student, Mills said, runs his own barbershop.
They’d like to help more students go more places. And to get out of that garage.
Before they moved here four years ago, Weems-Bradner said, they had a bigger campus in Silver Spring with some land. But the school’s limited budget made it tough to keep up maintenance. “Moving forward, we’d like to stay in Prince George’s County — [but] not necessarily in this location,” she said.
At Chelsea School, they seem to know they have something special. All they ask is that visitors “pass along the good news,” Mills said.