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The Chandler School featured in Greenville Talk
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The Chandler School featured in Greenville Talk

Dawn has not quite broken on a Friday morning as a handful of cars wind their way up a gravel driveway leading to The Chandler School in an old house-turned-school building on Augusta Road.

Four boys hop out, enter a classroom, pull chairs up to long tables and open thick automotive mechanics textbooks to a section about wheel alignments.

Soon they’ll walk outside where their instructor – Chris White, a salesman at Maserati Lotus Greenville – will demonstrate hands-on on a bright red Datsun 240Z Scarab edition, a rare car. For now, White draws the differences between casters and cambers with a marker on a white-washed classroom wall.

Every school day, the four boys show up at 7:15 a.m. to learn about cars. They learn by doing, fixing, building. But also by writing and reading that thick textbook, two skills that present an added challenge to the students.

The Chandler School has a very specific mission to teach intelligent K5-8th grade students who have language-based learning differences – such as dyslexia and ADHD – and prepare them for their future education in high school and college, said headmaster Dana Blackhurst.

More than any school in Blackhurst’s lengthy career as an educator, The Chandler School is an experimentation ground.

It’s a school molded in the image of its creator whose own dyslexia offers him a unique perspective on how to reach students, many of them very bright, who learn in a different way.

Blackhurst’s imprint shows up on this early morning Automotive Culture and Engineering class.

Blackhurst loves cars, owns them, races them. That’s how he knew White, who volunteered to teach the class. But the course is Blackhurst’s concoction – a way to teach math, physics, chemistry – in a manner where they could teach the students, show the students and have the students learn by doing.

In the course’s first two months, its four students built working models, tinkered with a go-kart and began to learn on the 240SZ.

And they took a field trip to Las Vegas where they rode in road-race cars and met world-class car designers and other industry experts.

“You want to make a place where a school is not just a school, it’s an experience,” Blackhurst said.

And at The Chandler School, it’s an experience created by its founder.

Blackhurst’s story

Blackhurst couldn’t read and by high school he didn’t really try. He skipped school for more enjoyable activities, like playing hockey in 1970s Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he grew up.

He never graduated high school, and through a series of events, ended up at Erskine College in tiny Due West. There, an education professor named Katherine Chandler, who specialized in learning disabilities, was somehow able to get him accepted. He admits his transcripts didn’t warrant it. He couldn’t read or write.

Under her guidance, he earned his G.E.D., and got through Erskine by listening to books on tape and recording lectures. In 1983 he earned a bachelor’s in early childhood education.

He told Chandler that one day he would start his own school.

He taught for a number of years, served as headmaster of Camperdown Academy in Greenville from 1991-2005, then as Executive Director of the Center for Innovative Learning at the Carroll School in Lincoln, Massachusetts and as headmaster of The Pine Ridge School in Williston, Vermont.

He’s earned honors along the way and has served on numerous education boards.

One time, on a trip to Washington D.C., he met Jan Jones, the mayor of Las Vegas from 1991-1999. Now they’re married. She lives in Vegas as an executive for Caesar’s Entertainment. He lives in Greenville, and each travels to see the other, he said.

Blackhurst said he didn’t intend to start a school when he moved back to Greenville, but the allure of his own school in a historic home in Greenville proved too much to resist.

“I retired and came back here and this is what I got myself into,” he said, gesturing to a stately yellow-and-white brick home that he purchased for $675,000 and renovated into a school.

Inside, the school’s hardwood floors, numerous fireplaces and dark-wood central staircase invoke the Hogwarts school, which Blackhurst mentioned with pride. Blackhurst lives at the school. There’s a bedroom, a bathroom with a claw foot tub and a small kitchen.

He’s still technically retired. He hasn’t taken a salary since the school opened in 2011.

Due to the amount of one-on-one teaching and small classes, tuition isn’t cheap. It costs $18,950 this year, said Ashley Hibbits, the school’s admissions director.

Parents come in search of a miracle to help their children, he said. He paints the school as an underdog, the little guy trying to make it against Greenville’s other private schools.

“I’m competing with everybody,” he said.

His speech mixes that braggadocio with frequent sports-and-culture analogies.

He said the school is run like the low-cost Moneyball Oakland Athletics. It’s also like David vs. Goliath – “David had the edge the whole time” – he said. He runs the school like a stable; he’s the trainer, the teachers are the jockeys, he said.

When he talks, he jumps from subject to subject and back again. It’s part of his multi-sensory way of thinking and communicating, he said.

He thinks in “vision-thought,” crafting plans and programs and efficiencies, he said. And he’s always thinking of how to push individual students further, parents said.

At The Chandler School, he’s found a place to put his designs behind those visions.

It’s an experience

As Blackhurst talks, a couple dozen students run, squeal and play a made-up game created by Blackhurst on a small court outside the school.

Nearby, a screened-in gazebo doubles as the computer lab and a place to put coats while students play.

This is recess, but movement is key at the school. Students move constantly throughout the day ─ from room to room, from inside to outside and within classes, standing to write words in large cursive letters (every student learns cursive) or to answer questions.

Blackhurst formed an intramural street hockey league. They’ve constructed a mini-Jamestown colony outside, part of a history lesson, and built a small pond, part of a science lesson.

“For me, this is fun. I get to see things, try ideas out,” Blackhurst said. “Every week we’re adjusting.”

The style is not for everybody. It’s traditional, throwback. Sometimes he’ll keep a student late into the evening until they finish their work. He said he wants teachers to teach tenacity.

“If the work’s not good enough,” he says…and he crumples a paper and tosses it aside.

On Fridays, they dismiss the students early and hold a staff meeting where they discuss each student, which ones to push, which ones to coddle.

Blackhurst said he wants to push students to their breaking point.

“I built a school to fail in, not to succeed in,” he said. “Learning to fail, learning to pick yourself up.”

It’s not for everyone, but for parents at their wits end or for students who are struggling in traditional schools, The Chandler School offers a place to turn. Here they can get the education foundation they need to succeed in high school and beyond, he said.

“These kids are brilliant,” said Dolly Herron, a teacher who taught special education at Greenville County Schools before coming to The Chandler School. “Dyslexic kids are brilliant.”

Many of the students have been “chewed up and spit out” at other schools, and The Chandler School offers them the one-on-one attention and teaching style they need, she said.

She said Blackhurst has an uncanny ability to decipher which ideas will work, which ones won’t and which buttons to push to see how students respond. Much of that strategy comes out of the Friday meetings, which each said can sometimes get heated.

History teacher Hunter Patterson said they “hover and cover” topics, digging in to the subject multiple ways until it sinks in.

“Everything you teach, you end up teaching it three times because you’vgot to do it auditory, visual and kinesthetic…That way it sinks into the brain,” he said.

Each student receives tutoring in the Orton Gillingham approach, teaching elements of reading and writing that come easily to people without dyslexia.

And every student learns to write, a skill Blackhurst said he feels compelled to force upon students with dysgraphia (an inability to write coherently) because of his own challenges to write that he never faced until he reached college.

“There are no disabilities here,” Blackhurst. “I do not believe in disabilities. We don’t have disabilities. In fact, we have the edge.”

Uncommon strategies

Through connections (some through his wife), Blackhurst has been able to give students that edge.

For example, students in the automotive class worked hard, he said, and he rewarded them with the trip to Vegas.

There, they met Peter Brock, a legendary car designer. They toured behind-the-scenes with Harrah’s Entertainment. They watched a car being built at American Shelby. They visited a private motor resort with a road-racing track, wore full racing jumpsuits and took a ride in a 2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT.

One student came back and wants to drive racecars. Anotherwants to be an engineer. A third said he wants to design cars while a fourth said he’s interested in the mechanical side of cars.

One Porsche driving instructor they spent time with also has dyslexia, he said. Blackhurst said he wanted to give them a vision for the success they could have.

“I already believe in their potential,” Blackhurst said.

Watching the students run around, Herron, the teacher, said they’re primed for future success because of, not in spite of, their dyslexia.

“I tell them ‘I’m jealous. I can’t buy it. You have to be born with it. I can’t learn it,’ ” she said. “You have challenges that I don’t have but you have gifts that I would kill for because you’re got a perspective. They can see things in just a whole different way.”

More information is available at thechandlerschool.org. Contact Ashley Hibbits at ashley@thechandlerschool.org.

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