Miracle on Second Street

Bob DeBoer, cofounder of New Visions School, uses unconventional means to develop reading skills
Diana Watters

In her office--a cool, dimly lighted room on the second floor of a former beer warehouse in northeast Minneapolis--Michele Repke is instructing me in the fine art of playing Pac-Man without a joystick. "You just need to relax and focus on the screen," Repke says, as she dabs water-soluble glue on my scalp. She then attaches four electrical sensors to my head. The sensors lead to a computer. In front of me, a modified arcade game boots up on the monitor. I relax and gaze at the screen. Suddenly, the little yellow Pac-Man begins to chug through the maze, gobbling up the dots in its path.

When I lose concentration, or blink, or clench my jaw, or pause to scribble a note, the Pac-Man dissolves. When I regain focus, it reappears and continues through the course. The experience is oddly soothing. After I have finished, Repke shows me another monitor, which displays a graph of my brainwave activity during the game.

I have done well. My brainwaves show that I have been both calm and focused--precisely the sort of mental state required for successful learning. "This just basically teaches your brain flexibility," Repke says. For kids who suffer from attention deficit disorder and similar afflictions, she explains, such conditioning can serve as an alternative to widely prescribed medications like Ritalin.

Known as EEG neurofeedback training, games like the joystick-less Pac-Man are part of an arsenal of novel educational approaches employed daily at New Visions School, an alternative learning center for students in kindergarten through the eighth grade, where Repke works as the staff neurotechnician.

Since its founding in 1992, the school has steadily built a reputation for using unusual techniques to produce remarkable results for some of the city's poorest and most challenged students. "They have been very, very successful, and the combination of things they have done in this building are pretty much unique," observes Joe Nathan, director for the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.

In standardized tests taken at the beginning and end of the 2000-01 school year, New Visions students recorded average reading gains of 1.3 grade levels. That is a significant accomplishment, especially considering that about half the 175 kids enrolled at New Visions are categorized as special ed. What's more, the reading gains were the same among both white children and children of color--an anomaly in public education.

Nathan says it is this sort of success, born out of innovation, that Minnesota lawmakers hoped for in 1991 when they passed pioneering legislation allowing for the creation of charter schools--the publicly funded, independently administered alternative to traditional public schools. And Nathan is hardly New Visions' only notable admirer.

Although the school has received modest attention in the press, it has been praised by the likes of Richard Riley (U.S. Secretary of Education under Pres. Bill Clinton) and Gov. Jesse Ventura. In the past several years, New Visions' parent organization, a nonprofit called A Chance to Grow, has received a little over a million dollars in state and federal grants to spread its educational gospel. This year, A Chance to Grow is training teachers in 45 public schools in Minnesota, as well as 72 schools in other states.

Despite the gloss of high-tech approaches like EEG neurofeedback, A Chance to Grow's signature program is as low-tech as they come. Called Boost-Up, it is centered on a series of repetitive exercises involving balance beams, floor mats, and assorted hand-eye tasks, all designed to produce richer connections at the neuron level. "We're just changing how they receive information," explains Bob DeBoer, the 55-year-old director and cofounder of New Visions.

DeBoer and his wife Kathy discovered the basic elements of what would become the Boost-Up program in the early Eighties, shortly after the birth of their daughter, Jesse, who had special needs as a result of oxygen deprivation at birth. Frustrated by the prognosis offered by traditional specialists, the DeBoers tracked down a Pennsylvania-based physical therapist named Art Sandler, who had developed an intensive regime of repetitive exercises to help kids compensate for serious brain injuries and disorders.

After three grueling years on Sandler's regime, Jesse had made remarkable progress. Inspired by the results, Bob quit his day job as a corporate accountant and, with Kathy, founded A Chance to Grow, a nonprofit that began as a home healthcare agency employing Sandler's methods.

After DeBoer learned of a therapist in Columbus, Ohio, who employed similar techniques to produce reading gains with struggling children, he set out to replicate that success in Minneapolis. In a four-year pilot program established in the late Eighties, DeBoer put groups of failing kindergartners through the Boost-Up program; without any additional classroom work, DeBoer says, they were soon making strides in reading abilities. Two years later, the gains were maintained, while the students' control-group peers still lagged behind.

That was all DeBoer needed. A former counselor at Marshall-University High School in Dinkytown in the early Seventies, he had been frustrated by the inability of traditional public schools to help the worst-performing kids. Bolstered by the success with the kindergartners, he and Kathy founded New Visions in 1992, initially to serve kindergarten through second grade, with Boost-Up as its centerpiece. Over the years, additional programs were woven into the curriculum, from EEG neurotechnology training to a host of special auditory and vision services.

"I'm not an original thinker," DeBoer insists. "I just find interventions that work." Although some of New Visions' programs are expensive (the EEG neurotechnology computer and program costs about $10,000 per unit), the school scrapes by on about $4 million a year. Per-pupil spending averages about $10,000 a year, the same as the Minneapolis public schools. "For us, instead of having a band program, we have neurofeedback," says DeBoer, who allows that the school has had to make do with less; for instance, there are no art or music teachers at the school.

For grateful parents, like staff neurotechnician Michele Repke, such sacrifices are acceptable. A former therapist, Repke first learned of New Visions after sending her then eight-year-old son C.J. to a summer Boost-Up program in the early Nineties. At the time, Repke says, C.J. couldn't tie his shoes, ride a bike, catch a ball or, more important, read. "I was told he would never be able to read. Everyone said the same thing: The connections in his brain aren't there." After a few weeks in Boost-Up, Repke says, C.J. demonstrated a marked improvement in physical coordination. One day, as mother and son were heading to the corner store, C.J. got on his bicycle, turned up his training wheels, and "started riding circles" around her.

"We never got to the store, and I was a blubbering idiot," Repke recalls fondly.

The following year, C.J. enrolled at New Visions; by the time he reached sixth grade, he was reading at an eighth-grade level. After he graduated, Repke, who had long volunteered at the school, took a job as a neurotechnician. Since then, she has seen similar success stories unfold again and again.

"I worked as a therapist for 30 years, but I have had more sense of accomplishment here than anywhere else I've been. You really feel it when you see these kids grow as much as they do. I'm lucky I can work at something I love," she says. "But if you don't think out of the box, you don't fit in very well here."

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