“How does one open a school, I wouldn’t know how to open a shoe store!” Joanne Sappo laughed as she declined the request by parents to open a school for their children. “I appreciate the vote of confidence, but a school isn’t like any other business. It is rare for one person to just start a school. I have no money to invest…I have no building…and no understanding of the legalities behind this kind of venture.”
The second request came a few weeks later when Sappo was invited to dinner. Mothers and fathers were seated around a table for dinner. Sappo was invited. After dinner the pleading and urging began. Men and women shed tears as they expressed the needs of their own children. The tears were impossible to ignore. Sappo tells the families that she would do some research.
School representatives advised Sappo by stating, “There is no way for you to open a school if it’s not a religious school.” One individual working for a local district described his effort and failure in opening a private school, though he had support and financial backing. One person after another told Sappo in one way or another that this was an impossible task. Feeling justified to beg-off from the project, Sappo began a plan to tutor the students. While preparing for a meeting with the small group of parents, Sappo reached for the life skill that has always guided her through decision-making. So, before giving up, Sappo would put professional opinions aside and go to the primary source for information and guidance. A call went in to the State Education Department and the Office of Non-Public Schools, which allowed Sappo to hear the first words of encouragement with a promise of support for the now quite possible plan that soon became a reality.
Three weeks after the initial meeting with parents, Sappo School opened its doors with these words, “I will teach your children for a year. If they make progress, I will continue another year. If that year finds students progressing better than they had in public school, I will continue one more year, and soon. You parents will determine this success of the program. Here we go –let’s start our first year!”
Sappo designed a school room in the home she shared with her sons. The first three students made excellent progress that first year. These initial three boys included one five years old, one ten year old, and one twelve year old. Two were non-readers and one was a seriously delayed reader. By the end of the school year, the two non-readers were reading, and the delayed reader was reading more fluently. Word spread and there were twelve students enrolled by early spring of that same school year.
By the start of the next year, Sappo had two investment offers presented. Each offer came with the promise of “big money” even a return of “millions”. All offers were refused since they compromised the integrity of the program. This was the beginning of a battle against greed and corruption that continues to be fought to this day. The shocking world that denies children the right to an adequate and fulfilling education opposed Sappo’s efforts from the start and that experience is fully logged in a manuscript under the tongue-in-cheek title “The School That Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Strengthening her resolve to fight against the “nest of corruption”, Sappo never let this distract from what each and every student needed to find success.
The learning experience became enjoyable. Lessons matched the individual needs and personalities of the students. The blend of ages formed powerful bonds as younger students looked up to older students as role models. Older students were encouraged to regard the younger students as little “brothers and sisters”. This model of individualism, relationship building and reading focus became the framework for Sappo’s Educative Holism and the supportive SHAPE (Sappo’s Holistic Approach and Procedures in Education) Strategies.
Education and Training
Sappo attended and began studying at Long Island University’s C.W. Post campus in 1965 to prepare for a career in law. By the third year the dream shifted to education. Both were life long areas of interest. Law was the avenue for righting wrongs and defending the innocent. Teaching was simply a natural skill Sappo nurtured through an unusual search for knowledge that started as soon as she read her first novel at the age of seven. By the age of thirteen, Sappo was presented with a set of the classical works of the world’s greatest thinkers by her father. By the time she graduated high school, Sappo read through these volumes and was sought out as a tutor for peers who had learning problems and low self-esteem. Experiencing success as peer students began to feel better about themselves led Sappo to do volunteer work with a local neurologist who taught her about the brain and the nervous system. A journey through non-traditional training programs satisfied the desire to teach in a way that would assure a love of learning through success for any willing student. When a professional would decide that a particular child can’t learn to read, Sappo’s favorite retort is always, “They can teach chimpanzees to read, and you can’t teach this child to read!”
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