AcademicsJan 10, 2023

updated Mar 16, 2023

Learning By Doing

Robert Bolger, our Academic Skills Center Director, has been there, done that

Arriving at Miss Hall’s this past summer, Robert Bolger was pleased to learn that the Leonhardt Academic Skills Center (ASC) operates on a fee-freeLearn more at the bottom of the page! model and is open to all students for various levels of support.

Robert Bolger, Ph.D.

That openness, Robert explains, reduces stigma around learning differences, acknowledges that students learn differently, and encourages them to seek support when needed. Robert speaks from experience. The new Director of the ASC was once a struggling student himself.

“Being open about challenges helps a lot,” he adds. “I had no help with different learning styles. I did it with a lot of encouragement from people telling me that I could do it, and that’s what excites me the most — when students achieve things they didn’t think they could, you see the confidence that comes from that, and I’ve been in their shoes.”

Growing up outside of Akron, Ohio, Robert figured he would follow his father’s footsteps into one of the city’s factories. Instead, with a deep interest in philosophy, he fortuitously landed in community college, where he found support, received an academic boost he hadn’t previously experienced, and met a professor who became one of his strongest advocates.

“It was that reinforcement that kept me going,” Robert explains. A Ph.D., two master’s degrees, and three books later, with a fourth in the works, he knows what can happen with a little encouragement.

The Miss Hall’s ASC provides academic support to all students, neuro-typical and neuro-diverse, while promoting academic, cognitive, and personal growth. In his role, Robert oversees and supports the center’s Learning Specialists, while also providing academic support for students and collaborating with faculty, families, and administrators to meet students’ needs.

“With struggling students, I see a lot of myself, but I never got the help I needed in high school,” Robert notes. “I didn’t thrive until I was encouraged. I still remember the feeling of getting that first ‘A’ in community college, and how that success built on itself.”

Learning starts with caring for students, making a connection, and building trust; then you can teach.

Director of the Leonhardt Academic Skills Center

After community college, Robert earned a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Washington, an M.A. in Religious Studies from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Religious Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

In 2008, while teaching at an all-girls independent school near Seattle, he discovered that some of his students had learning differences and others needed accommodations. He also realized that although he learned a lot in graduate school, he was not taught how students learned. With that in mind, he headed to Seattle Pacific University for a master’s degree in teaching, focusing on differentiated instruction and special education.

A learning specialist now for twelve years, Robert was a special education teacher for nine years and served three years as Director of Academic Resources at a college preparatory school near Seattle. It was an interest in directing a similar program — and a desire to live in the Berkshires — that led Robert to MHS. He and his wife, Lara, an ordained Methodist minister, arrived in July with their 16-year-old Lab-terrier rescue, Annie.

Along the way, Robert has woven many of his own experiences into his teaching philosophy, which, not surprisingly, includes some philosophy. He cites the Ethics of Care and the idea that connection and caring are as important to education as content.

“Learning starts with caring for students, making a connection, and building trust; then you can teach,” he adds. “It’s part and parcel of philosophical thinking. Caring for others is part of the meaning of life for me, and when students are cared for, they are more apt to learn.”

A Fee-Free ASC

Learning Specialist Alice Esteves

One of the School’s signature programs, the ASC provides academic and related support to students while promoting lifelong learning. That support includes one-on-one, group, and grade-level work on everything from executive function skills to subject-specific course work, and study skills. The ASC also supports classroom teachers in their work with students.

Until the fall of 2021, for anything beyond occasional drop-in help, families paid for the service, based upon the needs of the student. The shift to a fee-free model began during the spring of 2021, after conversations with Allison Isbell, who ran the academic support program at LREI — The Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School — and is now the high school’s co-Principal. The thinking was the LREI model could be used as a reference for MHS.

Learning Specialist Noelle Lenski

With the shift, comes dispelling the notion that the ASC is only for struggling students or those with learning differences, such as dyslexia. Rather, the Center is promoted as a place that can benefit all students, because all students can benefit from thinking about who they are as learners, how they learn, and what works best for them as learners.

Ultimately, the ASC’s mission is about providing students with the skills to be successful no matter the setting — at MHS and beyond!