Matthew Maichen knows what its like to be an outsider. This highly creative college senior, attended a series of schools during his academic journey before finding the right environment at Del Mar’s Winston School for kids with learning differences. The connection was a turning point for him that helped the teenager with autism spectrum flourish.
Today a fine arts major at Chapman University, Maichen credits Winston’s drama program as a pivotal moment that helped him find his creative voice and fit in. “I think differently and most environments don’t suit me,” he said with clarity.
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The truth is that the Maichen didn’t fit in socially or academically at the other schools and the stress of falling behind in his studies only intensified his isolation. He recalls one period when his anxiety and obsessive traits made him so stressed he suffered a breakdown. When he transferred to Winston School as a sophomore, he found a home and a sense of comfort that had eluded him elsewhere. Some of it had to do with the school’s learning system and one-on-one attention from teachers, but mostly it was the combination of creative writing and theater that offered an outlet for his offbeat ideas.
“I’m weird. I like weird and outrageous things. My drama teacher encouraged me to be bizarre and express my creative side. Her encouragement made a huge difference to me,” he reflects. The support was a shot in the arm, however, that incited Maichen to write a play about his days at Winston. “Darwin High” is a tale about three outcasts that try to fit in at a “normal” school. He has also penned the story “Anazia,” a novella about a friendship between a young girl and a giant spider.
One of the striking qualities about this young man is that in spite of his impairments he is comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is and embraces his differences as unique strengths. “I have a strong foundation of knowing who I am,” he says. His authentic qualities have made him popular with friends and earned him the Headmaster’s Award at The Winston School his senior year (2010).“Matthew always stood out. Whether he was performing in a comic or dramatic role or writing scenes, he was always pushing himself to grow. It would surprise none of his teachers to know what he is achieving now,” said Mike Peterson, headmaster of the school.His creative metamorphosis continues at Chapman. The Players’ Society, an experimental theater group at the university, performed Darwin High last month. Maichen describes the production as an amazing experience that has inspired him to rework the script and register it.
As the end of his undergraduate work at college is now in sight, he ponders the future. He works at the campus magazine, polishes his portfolio and muses about dream jobs as a professional writer.
From his vantage point, anything is possible now – even a master’s degree in Fine Arts.
In 1996, 16-year-old Paul Benavides appeared to be living a teenager’s dream. Rooming with this college-age brother in a La Jolla bachelor pad an hour away from parental supervision looked fun and did have perks but it wasn’t as easy as it looked.
The move from the family home in Orange County to his brother’s apartment was a result of being sidetracked by ADD, dyslexia and a public school that couldn’t or wouldn’t teach him in a way he could learn.
Upon discovering at the start of his junior year that his school considered him “off track” and unable to graduate on schedule, Benavides and his parents filed a lawsuit and turned to The Winston School in Del Mar where he graduated in 1998.
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Benavides said he knew he was falling behind in school, but had no idea how far. “I got lost in the crowd and actually found myself taking two semesters of ceramics.”Reality hit in the school office. “I was in a meeting with my counselor and parents discussing my academics. Their suggestion was to quit and sail around the world. That surprised me and I didn’t agree. I felt the school district wasn’t doing their job in educating me to my best potential. Even though I was testing in the 90th percentile they said I was lazy and disinterested. The teachers wanted to help, but they didn’t have the time to help me.”The family had heard about the success The Winston School has educating students with learning differences and discovered it was the perfect fit, except for the fact it was an hour plus away from the family’s home. Money was tight, he said, but they made it work by securing a 50 percent scholarship and allowing him to move in with his brother. Paul took the bus to school and joined the Winston School’s custodial crew to bridge the financial gap.
“The Winston School did wonders for my self-esteem, changed the course of my life,” he said. He credits the school’s teachers and small class sizes with his success starting the first day he walked in the door. “Everyone has educators that help them out and Mrs. Miller was a big influence my first year. In my previous school, I had gotten so far behind in math but in Mrs. Miller’s small class I was able to completely catch up in two years of math studies in one semester. It makes sense. When you’re in a class with 50 kids you can’t raise your hand because they need to move on. At Winston you raise your hand and they immediately come over to help you so you understand.”
Today there are no signs of early struggles. After graduating from Winston in 1998, Benavides earned an associate’s degree in civil engineering in the Community College of the Air Force and earned a bachelor’s in business administration and a master’s from La Verne. Today he is studying for his CPA and working part-time in his father’s CPA office. He’s also a partner in a business marketing and branding company Biz Name Wiz, Inc., which incorporates websites and ventures specializing in branding and URL investment.
In spite of that humble start in public school, after attending Winston, his resume has steadily grown more impressive and he hasn’t thought of ceramics in 16 years.
He enjoys scuba diving, photography, travel and trail running.
For his most recent adventure, he took six weeks off work for what he calls a “walk-about,” a loose reference “Crocodile Dundee and his naturally curious spirit.” And one would assume he has many places to “walk-about” because of his stint in the military, he has friends across the country and has been to every state in the 48.
Clearly the sacrifices Benavides and his family made were worth it. “For me, Winston School was life-changing,” he said.
Sadie Feuerstein was thrilled to be chosen to tour with the internationally acclaimed performance and community service group Up with People after she graduated from The Winston School in spring 2011. Being selected for the elite program would be an honor for any student, but Sadie had particular reason to be happy and thankful. She earned this opportunity after she came perilously close to dropping out of public school her sophomore year.
A gifted vocalist who plays piano and bass, Sadie struggled academically through elementary and junior high school with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). She said her ADD made her want to drop out of the large public high school when she began feeling lost in the crowd and her grades plummeted. “It was a slow breakdown,” she said. “I thought – well I’m failing at school and probably not going to get anything done here so why bother if I’m not going to graduate.”
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It was at this low point when her parents discovered The Winston School. In addition to having an impressive track record with educating students with ADD, Winston had the added benefit of an extensive arts curriculum providing classic training and a creative outlet. Sadie said while her parents were thrilled with the school’s credentials and success, “I was sold the minute I learned they had a rock band!”Upon starting at the school, Sadie said she was not only officially diagnosed with ADD, but also confirmed her belief that she is an auditory learner. “I always knew I was an auditory learner because somebody would say something to me and I could say it back to a ‘T.’ I’ve always found it so much easier to learn by listening rather than staring at a book being clueless. I just didn’t know what it was called until I got to the Winston School.”She quickly benefited from Winston’s smaller classes that offer individual attention and customized solutions for her particular learning challenges. “I used to have to compete with 50 plus students for the teacher’s time and just didn’t feel like I could accomplish anything so I wanted to leave school,” she said. “At Winston, the teachers pushed me in a new direction, teaching me there is a much better way of doing something than just quitting.”
Sadie’s considerable creativity also flourished after coming to Winston. She was a lead singer for the school band for which she played bass as well as keyboards, and school productions offered ample opportunities to perform on stage including the school’s talent shows in which she sang Nickleback’s “If Today Was Your Last Day” and “Defying Gravity” from the musical “Wicked.” She was also a lead in The Winston School’s summer arts program production of the musical “Grease,” performing the part of Sandy.
The Winston School’s music director Matt Curreri said she not only shined on stage, but was also a creative force behind the scenes. “I encourage each student’s individual talents and discovered Sadie was very good at arranging harmonies. She added to the band’s performances by teaching harmony parts for certain songs while I focused on making sure the bass, guitar and other instruments all play together.”
For students like Sadie with learning differences, Curreri said, the noise factor alone can make a music program challenging for students and teachers but the rock band program defies obvious reason. “A lot of our kids are great musicians. Most have this innate musical talent that may not always work in a classical music program but a rock band is perfectly suited in that it is more free-form and taps into their creativity.”
“I used to call her my unsinkable Molly Brown,” said Winston School 2011 graduate Madalyn (Madi) Tesoro’s mom Maureen. But that all changed when her young daughter reached junior high.
Struggling with high anxiety and undiagnosed auditorial processing disorder, Madi didn’t fit in with the other kids and was miserable. “She had always been such a happy child and it was heartbreaking to see her ridiculed so much,” Maureen said. “She would eat lunch by herself in the bathroom and it seemed like parts of her were getting chipped away. I felt like I was losing her.”
Maureen knew Madi wouldn’t survive another year in the public schools and was desperate to find a better environment. She discovered The Winston School through a friend whose son with learning differences was thriving there. Soon Madi was, too.
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Five years later, Madi was a powerful example of what the school has done for hundreds of students in the last 22 years. Once nearly defeated, Madi became a high-profile senior who was elected president of student council and named the lead in the school’s play “Arsenic and Old Lace.” She was also an esteemed mentor for two younger students in the school.“Ever since I first toured the school I loved it. It felt like home,” Madi said. “I was basically friends with all the kids here. I used to be anti-social but Winston helped.” The once shy teen now said after discovering her love for theater her junior year, it’s her favorite thing to do. “I would never have dreamed in a million years about being a president of a school or standing up on a stage – but now I can go up and talk to anyone in a crowd at school and I’m confident because they won’t judge me.Madi’s love and belief in the school was dramatically fortified in 10th grade when she left the school for a year to see what she was missing in the public high school. While the adventure started off well enough in special education classes she found “easy,” the experience wasn’t what she dreamed. “I was supposed to have a note taker in my history class but he never showed up and I started to fail that class. I also discovered the whole cheerleader and football thing wasn’t for me. When I’m in an environment I don’t like I shut down and don’t talk to anyone. The year just got worse.”
After passing the 10th grade, Madi returned to Winston with greater appreciation. “That experience really made me realize the Winston School was for me. I really understood the benefits – especially how all the teachers at Winston are so nice and available to help you when you need it.”
Maureen shares her daughter’s enthusiasm for the school offering a mother’s perspective. “When you have a child with a learning disability, education is a huge thing. But education is actually secondary to the social and emotional aspects. At Winston, Madi was able to walk with her head high and the education is just cream on top.
“Before Winston she never tried out for a play or talent show. I couldn’t even get her to get out of the car to go to school in the morning. To go from that to running for class president and winning; getting the lead in the school play; being a member of the prom committee, yearbook, mentor club – it’s all so amazing. I used to hear other parents talk about these things and I so wanted them for Madi – it makes me emotional to talk about it.”
Maureen credited the teachers with inspiring and giving Madi the tools to reach her academic potential as well. “Winston teachers taught without singling her out compared to other schools where if you can’t keep up with chapter one then you’re behind. They taught her at her own pace and understood how she learns. It was rewarding when Madi saw ‘As’ on her report card.”
She said the school also helped her in ways she never would have imagined. With two children, she said she used to feel overwhelmed with the homework load. “When you’re in the public school it lands squarely on your lap but I never felt overwhelmed with Madi’s Winston school work because she got so much attention from her teachers. I’m so appreciative of Winston that I feel if I won the lottery today they would get every penny.”
Madi shares her mother’s devotion to the school. After graduating, Madi set her sights on college with the goal of returning to The Winston School as a teacher. “I want to give back to all the kids who might have horrible teachers like I did and give them what this school gave me. They will like their teacher.”
Struggling with a learning processing disorder and failing grades, Matthew Gehring became an unlikely fan of summer school. After making Ds and Fs in every one of his sophomore classes at a local public school, his hopes for a successful life and education were fading when a friend who had also previously struggled academically suggested he join her at The Winston School. That suggestion changed his life. He enrolled in Winston’s summer school program, discovered he could learn, and never left.
Two years later, Gehring graduated from Winston and headed to California State University Monterrey Bay with a newly discovered passion for design and editing and a plan to study teledramatic arts. “I don’t know where I would be without Winston and my parents think it’s a miracle. We’re all happy that I made it there,” he said.
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“I had already attended my last-resort public school that was supposed to be for those who don’t fit in and really felt I had exhausted all educational avenues by the time I reached Winston,” Gehring said. “My old school didn’t have the services I needed and the teachers weren’t considerate of learning differences.” He said his visual processing deficit made reading a challenge and he didn’t have time to complete assignments. The situation was compounded, he said, by the fact it was an independent study school with classes only twice a week.Prior to attending Winston, Gehring said a common sentiment among his former school teachers and principal was that he wasn’t trying hard enough and that his learning difference was a simple problem he could control. “Some of my previous teachers were kind and cut back assignment and others couldn’t spend time with me because they weren’t getting paid for it and they didn’t have the experience needed to help me. They didn’t care about prepping me for college – they just wanted me to get to passing. The principal at that public school actually tried to transfer me to an even larger school. I felt unwanted and a complete failure.”His spirits improved dramatically when he arrived at Winston for summer classes. “I knew Winston was going to be a new experience when I was in class and realized more people were willing to help. I liked the campus, the teachers and the fact it was a much friendlier environment where I would make friends. Winston really brought me out of my shell.”
Gehring credited his teachers for much of his success and said he has appreciated the one-on-one attention and the fact he is no longer just a face in the crowd. “All the teachers work together to make it extremely exciting to learn here. It’s more interactive with smaller classes so you do more with other students and exchange ideas. While I’ve always liked a lot of the subjects, at Winston I can enjoy them more because I feel like I am better at them.”
He especially credits the school’s art, graphic/multimedia arts program teacher Mr. (Dan) Peragine with helping set his course in life by building his video production skills and desire to study teledramatic arts in college. Gehring originally discovered set design and editing while working with Peragine in the school’s summer arts program and while participating in Peragine’s moviemaking club. The teacher also introduced Gehring to the non-profit organization Community Visual Resource where he’s had the opportunity to produce films that reflect the community. Gehring recently helped co-produce, shoot, interview and edit for a Project Concern International film about the Walk for Water cause of bringing water to less developed countries.
Winston Headmaster Mike Peterson marveled at what Gehring accomplished in his two years at the school. “He seems to have really developed his passion here at Winston and begun to link to how it could play out in the real world. Will we be watching Matthew’s socially conscious documentaries or his independent films in 10 years? It seems more than possible.”
Citing other individual teachers, Gehring said he also appreciated dean of faculty and math and science teacher Mrs. (Amy) Spitler for helping him learn math; director of special education and English and history teacher Mr. (Jeff) Kozlowski for his support in advocating on his behalf; and the assistant head of school and English teacher Mrs. (Mary) Sterling-Torretti for helping him with his college admissions.