Alumna Establishes School for Kids Who Learn Differently

February 12, 2016

We all remember the minefields of middle school: the cliques, the popular kids, the nerds, the perplexing social structures, the pressures that seem — at that awkward moment in early adolescence — insurmountable and often downright frightening. While many kids successfully, if bumpily, navigate through those years, others find the social and emotional challenges just too overwhelming. To meet those students’ needs, Katy Shamitz ’99 has launched the Chapman Farm School on Massachusetts’ South Shore. “This is an answer to a need in our area for kids who need to learn a bit differently,” says Shamitz. “They need a smaller school so that they feel understood.”

The idea for the Chapman Farm School evolved out of Skills for Living, a center founded by Shamitz nine years ago in Norwell to meet the needs of kids who struggle with social interactions. Skills for Living provides support to almost 200 kids, ranging in age from toddlers to college students, who meet weekly in groups that break down social interactions into logical steps. “Among the middle schoolers, I was seeing too many kids bottoming out,” says Shamitz, who majored in education and psychology and is trained as a guidance counselor. “They were victims of bullying at their schools because they’re sensitive and gentle and have quirky interests.”

The Chapman Farm School, which is in its second year, operates out of Skills for Living in Norwell. Shamitz and her husband, Rob bought a 50-acre property in East Bridgewater — formerly a llama farm — in 2013 with an eye to turning its 7,000 square foot barn into a school building. The couple and their two young children live in a house on the property, but the school itself is based in the Skills for Living space until the barn renovations are complete this summer. Funding for the renovations has come from a variety of private sources, from what Shamitz describes as “countless $25 checks” to a $100,000 donation.  “When people give gifts to us, they’re saying they really believe in the concept.”

As a start-up, the Chapman Farm School is not able to offer financial aid at the present, but certainly plans to do so in the future. However, for Shamitz keeping the cost of tuition to families as reasonable as possible is critical.We set our tuition, which is currently $15,000, at a rate that makes The Chapman Farm School affordable compared to specialized therapeutic schools and established independent schools,” Shamitz explains.

In addition, the school will seek accreditation through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, a process that will take approximately three or four years. Under Massachusetts state law, the school’s curriculum is approved by the Norwell (and eventually, East Bridgewater) school committee.

Currently home to 17 students with a long-term goal of approximately 60 students, the school features small classes and flexible learning. While Shamitz is clear that it’s not a therapeutic or special education environment, some students have been identified with learning challenges such as ADD, executive function challenges, nonverbal learning disability, or mild autism spectrum disorders. “These are not kids with behavior problems,” she says. “They’re gentle and vulnerable and thrive when we provide them with a hands-on, flexible approach to learning. We group kids by what they need to be successful in school, not by how old they are. It’s more based on what kids need, not their date of manufacture.”

The curriculum features a cross-curricular approach: students take real-life situations and look at them in a transdisciplinary model so that they see the impacts — for example, an event might be discussed  in mathematical terms as well as in the context of language arts and history. Once the school moves to the farm, students will also enjoy interacting with animals. “Most of the kids feel a connection to nature and animals,” she explains. “Animals don’t judge you. Animals are very present with you. In kids with challenges around organizational skills, the routine of the farm can influence their academic approach.”

Shamitz is quick to credit Stonehill with inspiring her to launch both Skills for Living and the Chapman Farm School.

“You can see Stonehill in everything I touch,” she says. “I still have the same cheesy inspirational quotes in my office that I had on my wall as an RA. I learned to drive a 15-passanger van at Stonehill. I learned that every person matters and that there is a place for every person to belong and that there is something of value in every person. It comes through in every aspect of my work. Not only did I learn the ins and outs of education at Stonehill, I learned how to be a good person.”

“This is the work of my heart,” Shamitz continues. “I’ve had to take several leaps of faith with the business and the school, trusting that there’s a place to land and knowing I’ll land on my feet. I’ve gotten scuffed a few times in terms of money and worrying, but the goal is to provide a school where kids feel safe and respected. When we are talking about kids, we want to get it right.”