Margaret Shepherd’s Mission

Yesterday, today and tomorrow: the Oakland way

11/20/2009  |  AMANDA BABER
special needs

Margaret Shepherd, founder of Oakland School, was a true pioneer in the field of special education. She understood that children whom many educators and adults called “lazy” or “dumb,”were actually bright and simply “learned differently.”Her goal was to discover individual students’ learning styles, strengths and weaknesses and to teach to the whole child, encouraging students’ strengths and overcoming weaknesses. Mrs. Shepherd was a true believer that every child can learn, given the appropriate teaching in the appropriate environment. This goal, along with motivation, determination and her love of education and children, inspired her to begin Oakland School in 1950.

What began as a small summer reading camp for boys has since expanded into a coeducational boarding and day school for students with learning differences in need of a nurturing, structured environment. Along with individualized instruction and teaching techniques that focus on improving academics, an emphasis is also placed on strengthening character, building confidence and developing good citizenship skills.

Although many fabulous anecdotes and quotes exist from the early years of Oakland, a story that captures Mrs. Shepherd’s true innovation and spirit is known as“the problem box.” Students often arrive at Oakland somewhat defeated, having struggled in a traditional classroom either with academics or social relationships. On the first day of arrival, Mrs. Shepherd had students write or draw those struggles on paper to be placed in a box. Once completed, students kicked those “problems” down the hill to be burned in a camp fire, never to be seen again, assuring students that they were beginning with a clean slate and ready to begin learn-ing “TheOaklandWay.” Although the problem box is no longer burned at the beginning of the school year, the philosophy remains. All students enter Oakland with a clean slate. They are free from past burdens and gently guided to become better students, better friends, and ultimately, better people.

Teaching reading is Oakland’s specialty. Utilizing the program developed by Mrs. Shepherd, and incorporating additional varied teaching techniques, increased technology, and up-to-date resources, Oakland School has transformed hundreds of students into “read-ers.” The average student struggling in reading can expect a year and half to two year’s gain in grade level over the course of one academic year. The key is individualized instruction and a phonics curriculum that provides a solid foundation from which students learn, retain, practice and grow.

Teaching phonics at Oakland is unlike any other program. Students are located in the “Schoolhouse,” a classroom lined with chalkboards, designed by the founder with the specific needs of the student in mind. Using key words to captivate students’ interest and foster letter/sound relations, instruction begins with the core of the alphabet, vow-els. As basic concepts are mastered, the program continues until students have learned vowel teams, consonant blends, diagraphs, diphthongs and affixes and key syllabic instruction that students can apply to multisyllabic words.Thus, the process of becoming “readers” be-gins. The chalkboard design, is also a vital element of “The Oakland Way.” Students learn through various modalities in an environment where mistakes can easily be erased and accomplishments can be quickly recognized.

Attention to detail and design is not only important in the physical classroom, but also in developing an educational plan for each student.The key to student success is individualized instruction.This begins at the most basic level; each student’s academic and recreational day is individually scheduled. This allows the needs of each student to be addressed. Students are assigned according to strengths and weaknesses, while teachers and administrators also look at times of various courses, when the student best performs, ease of transition, peer relations, etc.

Individualized scheduling also allows teachers to have small groups that work well together and can progress quickly in academics and peer relations. The non-graded curriculum allows each student to work at his or her pace to achieve his/her potential in every classroom, in every area. Individualized instruction also allows students to work at various levels in various content areas. This enables students to work at their ability level in each subject, to excel above grade level in one subject while being allowed extra time to catch up in a subject that is more challenging.

Mrs. Shepherd understood that individualized instruction is crucial in fostering student success at Oakland. Students can receive the remediation necessary while also soaring in subjects and areas of strength. This not only ensures academic success, but also increases self-confidence, promotes a willingness to learn, and develops a desire for success.

Teaching students with learning differences not only requires individualized instruction and small class size, but also innovative teaching techniques, dedication and thinking outside the box, all of which Mrs. Shepherd not only utilized in the early years of Oakland, but embedded in the philosophy of Oakland that continues to be the core of instruction today.

A multi-sensory approach is at the foundation of reading and math instruction at Oakland. Students learn tactilely through tracing packets of key vocabulary and sight words. They work with manipulatives and touch-point to understand and generalize key concepts in math. Students work with chalkboards and white boards when practicing skills in phonics, reading and math. In addition, students participate in numerous hands-on learning groups to gain greater understanding of concepts while also developing social, teamwork and problem solving skills. Students receive at least one one-toone instructional period each day. This time is dedicated for students to work instructionally with the teacher to reinforce necessary skills, develop strategies, and increase organizational and study skills. Time is also devoted to oral reading. Students practice decoding and fluency while building comprehension skills. Independent instruction continues to address the needs of the auditory learner through the utilization of books and lessons on tape. Students often track words as the speaker reads along to increase sight vocabulary, build vocabulary knowledge and increase comprehension. In addition, flashcards are incorporated to increase phonological awareness, decoding skills, organization and study skills.

Timeless traditions are an integral part of Oakland School. Oakland specializes in providing a strong academic foundation that often incorporates the basics of pencil and paper. Oakland focuses on reading, spelling, vocabulary, math, grammar, writing and study skills. Mrs. Shepherd was known for her innovative ideas and would be the first to embrace today’s technology by incorporating technology and teaching. As students progress through the program, developing the necessary skills to be successful, Oakland continues to challenge students and implement an increased work load and broader knowledge of technology.

All students in English classes concentrate on keyboarding skills and computer efficiency. Teachers incorporate numerous technological devices that enhance content and expand student awareness. Students become familiar with assistive technology to support outlining, organization and writing skills. Students are responsible for creating and presenting presentations that incorporate students’ knowledge of content along with knowledge of technology.

For over 60 years, Oakland School has been true to Mrs. Shepherd’s mission while also utilizing up-to-date methods and techniques. Her revolutionary vision has not only changed the way that students learn, but has changed the way educators view learning and teaching. Understanding that all students can learn, but that some students learn differently, is a lesson that all educators should recognize and embrace.

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