A Busy Bubble of Activity

The Barclay School serves children with diverse strengths

By Deena C. Bouknight

Jeff Amberg

On any given day, the students at The Barclay School, just up the road from Ridgeway’s historic Main Street, are reciting historic dates, mastering yoga positions and karate moves, writing letters to seniors at the nearby nursing home and roasting coffee. The Barclay School, simply put, is extraordinary. School Head Gillian Barclay-Smith, Ph.D., in her still-apparent British accent –– even though America has been home for 26 years –– expresses joyfully the uniqueness of her students as well. 

The Barclay School, housed in a grand historic mansion situated on 100 acres, is “a private, non-profit school serving children with diverse strengths,” according to its statement. Currently, there are 21 students ranging in age from 6 to 20 years old with autism, Down syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Asperger’s and anxiety. The goal of the school is to be a sort of academic/vocational community in a busy bubble of activity that ultimately results in the students achieving skill sets that will enable them to contribute to and remain active in the world. Gillian says that if the strengths of special needs students are not honed and weaknesses remediated, students could end up spending their lives in a room watching television or playing video games. That thought is unacceptable and makes her cringe. 

Gillian knows all about having diverse strengths. She was a middle schooler in England when she realized there was something different. “My father, after whom I have named the school, used to commute home from London, eat supper and re-teach me the day’s math lesson before I could finish homework. At age 11, a single standardized test determined I would attend a high school where the goal wasn’t necessarily college, while my older sister attended the ‘other’ high school.” And then she heard her parents whisper the word “slow.” 

Yet, another test in high school later revealed that Gillian could excel. “I went from ‘slow’ to ‘genius’ overnight; the only change was the teaching and testing methodology. Thus, began lifelong questioning and skepticism toward the educational system that continues to this day.” 

She received her masters in English and German literature, with a minor in education at the University of Dusseldorf in Germany and eventually obtained her doctorate in education in 2002 from the University of South Carolina. And, for many years, she worked with special needs students at schools such as Sandhills and Glenforest in Columbia. 

Gillian Barclay

What began as requests from parents of children with diverse strengths for Gillian to tutor grew into The Barclay School in 2009. “It’s where the cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all notion of teaching and learning is rethought,” she says. 


Safe and Nurturing

Until Christmas 2015, The Barclay School operated out of a rented house on the campus of Columbia College. Gillian says the institution was supportive, expressing that The Barclay School was a good fit for its Master’s in Divergent Learning program. She taught at the college occasionally, and professors would bring students to the school to witness an alternative approach. (Columbia College students still intern occasionally with The Barclay School.) The school grew and flourished, from four students to 10 before moving to Ridgeway. Tom Hall, a Columbia attorney and the owner of a historic property in Ridgeway, just happened to be on the school’s board and suggested his renovated house as “the perfect fit” for the growing The Barclay School’s second home. 

The philosophy is still the same: “We have a holistic, whole child approach, working with our students academically, socially and emotionally,” says Gillian. “Each child is viewed as a valued individual and as an important, contributing part of our community.” 

She points out that the four full-time teachers, including herself, and two part-time teachers all work from what she explains as a strength-based paradigm that focuses on what a child can do versus what is considered a traditional deficit program that highlights weaknesses. 

“The deficit model often leads to self-doubt, lack of confidence and negative internalized labels, as well as the student dropping out, both academically and emotionally.” 

She remembers knowing how it felt to realize where she should be as a student. That aspect is taken out of The Barclay School’s equation. Instead, teachers allow students to move at their own pace, and teachers adjust and readjust teaching methods to meet needs. 

One teacher, Mary Cinquemani, is also a traditional adult yoga teacher. She did not think she could teach the Barclay students yoga, yet she learned through research that yoga is especially beneficial for the core muscles of a child with Down syndrome. “I figured out that I would often have to hold their hands and help them into positions until they could master the move and build up muscle strength to do it on their own. Not everyone does it correctly, but everyone definitely participates.”

Edith Bailey, assistant head of school, says that the students might be studying one aspect of a subject and show curiosity about something that was not planned. “You never know what experience will light them up.” 

A recent segment, for example, involved studying pond life and pond quality, so students took walks into the woods and visited the property’s pond and streams to count tadpoles. 

Often, visitors from every imaginable career field visit the students. In January, an illustrator with The New Yorker Magazine came by to show the students how he came up with images. There have been various musicians, someone from NASA, Mayor Steve Benjamin and others to drop in. Surrounding the visit — prior to or afterward or both — some type of unit study helps solidify the information that is shared by the guests into the minds of the students. 

In addition, specialists for specific subjects like music, art or pottery come into the school, while students leave the school grounds for such opportunities as karate, field trips to places like Midlands Technical College, or to visit with welcoming shopkeepers in downtown Ridgeway. 

“The Barclay School has been an answer to many prayers regarding our son Joseph’s education,” says Ann Lonon. “With his being a 14-year-old with a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism, I was never comfortable putting him into a typical school setting, because I could never really be sure what would go on during the day that he would not be able to tell me. There is such a variety of needs and ages at The Barclay School, and that creates an opportunity for the older students to serve and come alongside the younger ones. Joseph has grown in numerous ways since he began attending Barclay. Most of all, he has become more independent and has learned many important social skills. No day is a typical day at Barclay, and we are truly blessed to be able to enjoy the benefits of not being typical.” 

Students are often asked their opinions on certain subjects. One year they were asked what the number one rule should be at the school. Unanimously, they decided: no bullying. “We didn’t realize how much it had been a part of many of their young lives,” says Edith. “We had a playwright work with them on a playwriting project about it, and then they performed the play locally.” 

Eugenia Dowdy says her two sons, Ethan and Nathan, faced much difficulty in other schools. “Ethan is expected to do everything at Barclay, and he does,” she says. “Our children are now victorious, and they are more prepared for every step of their journey, which is a walk in a different world. The level of skill and dogged determination of a compassionate staff is what allows children with special learning considerations, such as my sons’, to be successful in the classroom and life.” 

One of the life skills learned is the ability to correspond through letters. Students have made such special friendships with some of the residents at a nearby nursing home, Laurel Baye, that they write letters to them, as well as plan parties and sing Christmas carols. They also write about “news” at the school and publish articles in The Barclay School Chronicle, which has a circulation of about 150. At the end of the year, they publish a yearbook with all the volumes of the school newspaper so there is a record of the previous 12 months’ activities.


Profitable and Rewarding

Since The Barclay School is a non-profit organization, raising funds is an ever-present consideration. Many of the students attend the school on some type of scholarship, and there is a sliding scale payment program. The school is supported by individual donors, through fund-raising efforts and by sheer ingenuity. For skill-based learning, fund-raising contributions, and financial planning and budgeting training, students have learned to make and market home-made items. Farming education is taught by “Goat Man” Dave Artigues, who was convinced by his long-time friend and former Citadel classmate, Tom Hall, to move from North Carolina to the home that Tom rents to The Barclay School. Although educated and experienced in the field of psychology, Dave admits to a love of farming and all things natural and enjoys living on the grounds of The Barclay School. He is an award-winning goat and feta cheese maker and is turning the barn on the property, with the student’s help, into a goat dairy. There are 13 goats that the students help care for, and five of those goats are pregnant. Students will also learn how to make soap with the goats’ milk. 

Three farm pigs — Squealer, Napoleon and Cinnamon — will never be butchered, but simply provide another opportunity for students to learn care and empathy. “Watching the students walk out into the pasture and begin to love on and scratch the backs of the pigs and goats is witnessing humanity unmasked,” Dave says. “It is so beautiful.”

Dave also taught the students how to roast organic, green, fair-trade coffee beans. A holiday offering was a Yemen Mokha Bani Harazi Peaberry blend. The students grow herbs and lettuces in raised gardens. For lunch one day, the students picked, washed and assembled the lettuces for a salad. A recently assembled geodesic dome will be used as a green house. Dave eventually plans for at least a bi-annual school fundraiser featuring farm-to-table gourmet dining events in the rustically decorated goat barn.

An interesting sideline that brings much humor to the school is the students’ involvement in making Bunnies Brew, a stewed mixture of droppings from the farm’s rabbit and water to make an ancient plant tea recipe for fertilizing gardens. The fertilizer is beautifully packaged in recycled red wine bottles, and the students designed the label. It is sold by local vendors and at fundraising events. 

The goal is to eventually have a small retail outlet in downtown Ridgeway where the farm-raised and made goods can be sold. Any extra monies made by the students are managed by the students themselves, with basic accounting instruction. They sometimes take portions of their earnings to downtown Ridgeway and purchase small items from the shops. Edith says, “They go into shops, spend money they earned, shake hands with shop owners and answer questions. This encourages independence and self confidence.” 

Gillian says the whole town has been tremendously supportive of the students. 

Students and staff at The Barclay School are also involved in the community by volunteering time with Food Share and Meals on Wheels. Plus, the students have built and decorated a free library where they give away donated books they do not need or use as well as other extras. 

“We really teach the students that you have to do for others,” says Gillian, “and they are more than willing.”

With great enthusiasm, she adds that everyday she, along with the students and the staff, recognize the uniqueness of the school. “It’s a magical place. I’m humbled by it and privileged to be a part of it. It’s a joyous, funny, loving place to be. It’s wonderful group dynamics –– a symbiosis. I don’t know where else I’d want to be than at this school with these students and this staff.”

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