Why Kids with Dyslexia Need Specialized Schools to Thrive: An Interview with Kevin Pendergast, Head of School at The Kildonan School

“Your child should attend a school specific to language disabilities or consider the home-schooling option.”  Families like ours receive this type of recommendation all the time, and it is a life-changer. Perhaps you work full-time, or you know that you and your kid are not a good fit for a home-school scenario. You may not have ever thought about a specialized school or considered the logistical and cost factors. Your child has not been progressing in a typical school environment, and you know they are smart, so the recommendation is not a shock. It’s merely a wake-up call for a reality you were not ready to face. That was our story.

To get our daughter the reading services she needed, last April we drove to The Kildonan School in Amenia, New York, to learn whether our daughter would be a fit. As previous blogs have described, our daughter attended the summer camp, Camp Dunnabeck, for six weeks, and made unprecedented progress. For kids with reading issues who have not demonstrated improvement in a traditional school system, private schools for language issues are the difference between thriving versus not finishing high school or graduating with limited choices. For this post, I am proudly interviewing Kevin Pendergast, esq., who is Head of School at The Kildonan School.

Kevin Pendergast, Head of the Kildonan School, stands next to a student who is on a horse.
Kevin Pendergast, esq., the Head of School at The Kildonan School, standing with a former student.

What are the major differentiating factors between Kildonan and a typical school, and why do we need schools like Kildonan?

Two great questions:

A. Typical schools, particularly public schools, are modeled on a noble idea, one that was inspiring and radical when it was created in the 19th century and which continues to be an important and moving means of giving every American child, regardless of economic status or demographics, the chance to prepare for the future and pursue his or her dreams.  That ideal, of course, isn’t fully realized in the case of the urban and rural poor, and it certainly doesn’t apply to the learning disabled.

Kildonan has tossed that model out and replaced it with a fully individualized approach, whereby each student’s curriculum arises from his or her skill level and interests rather than from an externally imposed and uniformly delivered curriculum heedless of what the student already knows, what his/her skills are, and what (s)he is curious about.  That doesn’t mean our students don’t learn the commonly expected content of chemistry, calculus, American history, etc.  They do—it’s just that they gain the skills they need while building content knowledge in a setting that’s the opposite of lecturers expecting students to take notes, memorize them, and give memorized facts back on an exam.  Rather, Kildonan teachers engage students in project-based work and in deep-dive collaboration in those subject topics, whereby the International Baccalaureate principles and goals of problem-solving, global mindedness, and critical analysis grow every day, in every class.

B. We need schools like Kildonan because intelligent students with learning differences will develop the worst self-esteem and debilitating alienation in a mainstream environment. They need and deserve highly trained, specialized understanding of their dynamic talents and complex struggles.

If a school district offers Orton-Gillingham, or another evidence-based multi-sensory intervention with fidelity, do you still think that there will be a need for specialized schools like Kildonan?

Yes, because even in the best scenarios, the given LD student gets pulled from other programming to receive the district’s services and, after the remedial session, walks out into a mainstream setting for his/her other courses, sometimes embarrassed by the presence and intervention of an aide, sometimes left unaided with a non-multi-sensory, text-heavy, lecture-heavy curriculum designed for large groups of neurotypical kids.

What are some of the mistakes you see teachers from public or traditional school systems make with kids with reading or learning differences, and how do you think that more teachers can help these students?

A. Every public and mainstream teacher I’ve met cares deeply about his/her students and strives to help them succeed.  The most common mistakes I see are (in order of frequency) as follows:

  • Assuming that LD students aren’t trying hard enough.
  • Believing that every LD student who behaves well is reachable through standard special-ed teacher training.
  • Believing that canned reading programs intended for group teaching will be effective for any but the most mildly LD students.

B. Teachers can help those students more effectively by getting Orton-Gillingham training under the auspices of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators and by receiving required, ongoing supervision from Fellows from the Academy.

What is your opinion regarding how technology can or should be used to level the playing field?

It can’t be used to level the playing field fully, but in the absence of proper remediation, it is useful to learn speech-to-text, text-to-speech, and auto-complete software.

How is the technology used at Kildonan?

We take advantage of it in a balance with traditional pencil-and-paper skill-building.  In our Assistive Technology Lab, two specialist faculty train students in the software mentioned above (TTS, STT, auto-complete, etc.) to be used as tools when a student needs them in college, say, when meeting a tight deadline for a major paper or a long reading assignment.  But our students learn that traditional “eye reading” and traditional written composition will always be superior to tech-facilitated “ear reading” and dictation, as the latter helps with content acquisition and moves more quickly than traditional means (usually, not always!), but you lose the gains in vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing skills that come with daily use of old-school reading and writing (I’m including keyboarding/word-processing under the “traditional” mode), and you don’t gain as much content information with TTS as you do with eye reading.

What is the most significant change you see in your students when they arrive at Kildonan, and when they leave or graduate?

Arrive: Self-doubting.  Graduate: Ready to conquer the world.

Arrive: Poor skills in reading, or writing, or spelling, or reading comprehension, or vocab., or math, or some combination.  Graduate: Highly skilled and ready to compete against non-LD students in mainstream colleges and universities.

Arrive: Fearful of speaking up for his/her rights with professionals in a position of authority.  Graduate: A self-advocate skilled at securing accommodations without a massive fight.

Arrive: Unaware of the extent of his/her talents.  Graduate: Fully aware of them and developing them into an impressive CV and/or portfolio that inspires college admissions offices.

Arrive: Inconsistent in character traits, perhaps kind and compassionate but needing improvement in resilience, independence, engagement with disadvantaged communities, etc..  Graduate: Personally aware of the plight of the poor, experienced in mentoring younger, disadvantaged students at a nearby public school, self-reliant.

What are your dreams for your students?

That over time they will see that no door should closed to them, that any ambitious idea they have for their future is attainable, even if it’s a field they’ve heard discouraging advice on—journalist, lawyer, professor, etc.

What are your hopes for Kildonan?

That we’ll figure out a way to extend the benefits of a Kildonan education to every child in need of it, regardless of financial resources.  We’re trying to establish a model for it right now with a school district in central New York State.

Kevin Pendergast, Esq., is Head of School at The Kildonan School in Amenia, N.Y., the only boarding school in the world devoted solely to preparing students with dyslexia for college and career.  After completing a Master’s program in English at Fordham University in New York City, Kevin served as a Literature teacher and Orton-Gillingham tutor at Kildonan for five years, during which time he led the Literature Department and Camp Dunnabeck, the school’s summer program.  He taught also at The Churchill School in New York City before attending law school at Case Western Reserve University, from which he earned a J.D. in 2006.  After working in the International Law sector of Oxford University Press’s Law Division for six years, he returned to Kildonan as its head in 2012.  In his six years in that leadership role, Kildonan has attained accreditation as an International Baccalaureate school and has created an O.G.-based foreign language program for all its students and an independent research program for Juniors and Seniors called EDGE.  Kildonan has also opened an O.G. tutoring center Stamford, Connecticut.  Kevin in the last three years has presented on the topics of dyslexia awareness and special education law at annual conferences for the organizations Everyone Reading (New York), the New York State Association of Independent Schools, the International Educational Consultants Association, and the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators.  As an attorney, he has also successfully represented a dyslexic student and his family in securing an appropriate education and has published an article in his law school’s law review (where he was a contributing editor): “Schaffer’s Reminder: IDEA Needs Another Improvement”, 56 Cas. W. Res. L. Rev. 875 (2006).


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