PALMDALE, California, May 22, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — A Catholic teacher has been successfully running an online education institution to provide a learning environment especially for Catholic children with special needs in the safety of their homes.
Margaret Walsh, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College with a Master's in special education, founded Secret Garden Educational Pathways to help special needs students to learn in a Catholic environment and to make up for the ways that curricula provided by schools were failing to meet the students’ real needs. The website was launched in 2017; however, it had existed under the name Living Pictures since 2015.
Garden in disrepair
The online service, run from Walsh’s location in California, is named after the story The Secret Garden, where a young girl, Mary, finds a secret garden in ruins hidden on the grounds of a mansion. With the help of her friends and a gardener, Mary transforms the garden into its former beauty. In the process, she and her friends are also transformed.
Walsh maintains that students with learning disabilities are similar to a garden in disrepair.
By strengthening mental “pathways,” students can discover their strengths and overcome their weaknesses to blossom into successful and joyful students, she said.
The ‘heart of learning’
The Secret Garden Education Pathways seeks to help Catholic children with special needs “go to the heart of learning” — namely, the Catholic Faith — to further the student’s learning ability.
In an email to LifeSiteNews, Walsh said the first reason she decided to start this organization was the realization that students who have difficulties learning academically will also have trouble learning about the Faith.
When she worked in a secular school, Walsh taught two Catholic high-schoolers. She asked them a question about Purgatory and learned that they knew nothing about their faith. She realized that Catholic students with disabilities who have little knowledge of regular subjects would also likely have little knowledge of their faith.
Walsh also desired to offer students a learning environment where parents could be confident about the content and the teachers to which their children would be exposed.
In light of the LGBT agenda’s infiltration of schools, drag queens, sex education, and the fact that students with special needs are often more at risk than other students, Walsh sees it as important to provide a learning environment for these children in the safety of their homes. Statistics report that children with learning disabilities are significantly more likely to be molested than non-disabled children.
“In a time when the public schools have turned into a political battlefield rife with immoral content, and Catholic private and homeschools often don't have the means or expertise to help students with special needs, I am excited to be sharing my venture,” Walsh said.
Special needs students are susceptible and seek to please others, meaning that exposure to people and ideas “is even more sensitive than students without learning disabilities,” Walsh explained.
“It is highly important,” Walsh continued, “to provide a very safe and healthy environment where students can improve academically, boost their confidence, learn their Faith and have no worries about the environment or interactions.
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What Secret Garden offers
The education center uses Catholic materials to offer “professional remediation and therapy services” for special needs students.
“What I am doing is different than many other people, and is often a missing piece of the puzzle that is needed for outcome success,” Walsh told LifeSiteNews.
“Most of the time schools are helping students by modifying the curriculum and accommodating the learning style of the student, i.e. if Johnny is a visual learner, the teacher will write things on a whiteboard or if Johnny can't complete a whole math lesson, he would be allowed to do just 5 problems. Oftentimes this means getting a diagnosis and then learning to live with the diagnosis with accommodations,” she said.
“However, we are offering the other missing piece of the puzzle through remediation and education therapy. We are looking at the diagnosis, or the expressed weaknesses a student has, and then helping the student strengthen processing and thinking skills so that they can improve their abilities and potential and reach higher levels of success. Instead of taking the approach, ‘let’s learn how to live with this’, we are taking the approach, ‘let's see if we can move beyond this and strengthen the mental pathways needed to learn more easily’. I call it a growth mindset and we have seen so many improvements in students we work with,” Walsh continued.
“An analogy would be someone who injured their leg and the medical doctor says that they will always have that injury and crutches are the best way to live with it vs. a physical therapist who will help that person strengthen the injured leg so that the chances of walking without crutches are better,” she added.
Walsh outlined a number of reasons why parents would choose her program.
1. They can easily access it from home and their students often feel more comfortable working from their own home. This also means they don't have to drive anywhere and have the rest of the family sit in the car for hours.
2. We are happy to bring the parents into the learning process and give them as many tools as they can to work better with their students.
3. For Catholic families, we use Catholic materials that offer room for discussion and exploration of the truths of the Church and stories of saints, that they may not have been able to understand before. This is one of the things I love most about this is that we can help students explore their faith while strengthening their processing, which can be applied to any subject. One of the reasons I founded this company is because I discovered that if students are struggling with “common” subjects like history and math, they are often not understanding their Faith to the fullness they can.
4. We are aware of the financial constraints of many families and strive to keep the cost much lower than other therapy groups, charging less than half the rate most places charge.
5. When we work with students, we use our own materials initially and then often help students transition to learn how to work better within their own curriculum.
While the company is Catholic, Walsh told LifeSiteNews she is happy to work with Catholics and Protestants alike. The company has worked with Protestants in the past and modifies materials “so that there is not a specifically Catholic emphasis.”
The program also uses many materials that would appeal to a wide range of beliefs, such as Aesop's Fables, the Book of Virtues, and historical articles.
The education center helps children who struggle with reading, memory, focus, comprehension, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and general learning difficulties.
It offers “Student Booster Programs,” helping students work one on one with specially trained teachers to overcome the students’ weaknesses.
The center offers a Comprehension and Literacy Program and a Decoding (reading and spelling) Program plus consultation with therapists.
The classes are one-on-one with teachers via online classrooms on the video conference platform Zoom. Classes are frequent to strengthen the concepts learned, starting with daily classes for several weeks. After an assessment, students continue with about 1–3 classes each week.
“The kids are in the comfort and safety of their home,” Walsh said. “And it is actually conducive to making more progress.”
The methods used enable students to succeed in any subject. The program “is cumulative,” each step building upon the previous to allow students to reach their level by working through their developmental stages.
Walsh outlined how she has helped students with disabilities learn.
“For example, we've worked with students who could barely read when they started with us, and now they are reading the Chronicles of Narnia (some of them can't put a book down now). We’ve worked with students who had great difficulties with memory and comprehension, who couldn’t remember what they had learned just hours previous, and now they are enjoying school, have confidence and even studying encyclicals,” she said.
“Though there is a wide range of how much each student can improve, we have seen very promising improvements with most of our students. I believe this is because we are helping them strengthen their processing pathways so that the information is less corrupted due to weakness and they can truly understand.” she added.
Parents testify that these methods help their children to learn.
One parent wrote in a comment posted on Secret Garden’s website: “Margaret was a great addition to our homeschool this past year. She worked with my fourteen-year-old son on a variety of things including strengthening his use of imagery, improving his retelling skills and increasing his reading comprehension. My son really looked forward to his classes with Margaret, whose calm and patient ways seemed to decrease his anxiety. Not only did I see improvement academically, but I also saw his confidence increase. Thank you, Margaret!”
“Our son was struggling with reading quite a lot and had never really read at grade level,” another parent wrote. “He always tested very low in reading as well. After working with Ms. Walsh intensely during a 6-week summer program, his reading ability was noticeably improved, and kept improving as the school year went on. What has been most remarkable is seeing his most recent test results. Marked improvement across ALL areas of testing, including the reading!”
One student wrote, “Margaret helped me with a lot of things. She taught me how to picture so that I could understand what I was reading. She also taught me different mind games, which was my favorite thing. AND, she was a lot of fun!”
May 23, 2020 correction: An earlier version of this report mistakenly referred to Walsh as a mother.