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Meet Crystal Downs: High School Dean of Students and Learning Advocate

Struggling is a part of learning. This is as true during the school years as it is in the workplace. Many times we learn more through our struggles than we would otherwise. In fact, Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack write in their book, Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Transform Professional Practice that “the experience of cognitive discomfort essential prerequisite of new learning”. Crystal Downs, K-12 Learning Advocate and head of GAC’s Academic Support program, looks beyond the apparent struggles her students have to the end result--a more resilient, prepared student. This program serves approximately 10% of GAC students through a variety of instructional methods, educational services, and school resources, so the participants can make learning progress, meet curriculum standards, and succeed in school.

GAC has a long history of meeting students where they are, having embraced the idea years ago that there are many kinds of students in a classroom, each with a unique learning profile that reflects his or her particular learning strengths and weaknesses. Says Crystal, “At GAC, we are aware and responsive to the fact that we have a diverse group of thinkers and learners in the classroom who do not process information in one way. We have to be dynamic in our way of teaching so we can meet various needs as we work to become One GAC”.

GAC’s commitment to providing a rigorous and challenging college preparatory environment is not at odds with its desire to support different learning needs. In fact, it’s an advantage to do both. Whereas families might have been split between two different schools, now all family members can attend the same school as GAC offers support for students with mild, diagnosed learning differences from K-12. “The success of Academic Support relies on the process of partnership.  We meet with parents to discuss the level of support needed and provide an overview of our program.  As a result, parents are able to make informed decisions when seeking the best learning environment for their student”.

"In Academic Support, we help students define what success looks like for them. While letter and number grades have their place, they are not the sole measure of success. Success relies on the mindset of growth, the process of pushing forward in the presence of challenge. Learning is a journey and the routes to the destination of success look different for each student."

GAC helps students in this journey by exploring how they learn best and using those methods when completing tasks. Whether it be strategies for reading comprehension, the organization of ideas to deliver a clear, concise presentation, or devising a study plan for tests, Academic Support assists students in identifying and using strategies for academic growth.  

GAC’s program differs from public school student services in a key way. While in public schools, a student with an individual education plan (IEP) may not be held to same standards as their grade level peers, at GAC all students, including those in the Academic Support Program, are taught the curriculum and held to national and Georgia state standards. “GAC is a good fit for students who have successfully completed an IEP program or have graduated from a specialized school (such as Schenck or Howard)  but need support transitioning to the general classroom. While our program serves students K-12, our goal is for students to learn how to effectively use the tools needed to transition out of academic support. We want students to thrive in the least restrictive environment possible.”

Crystal looks for creative ways to help her students shine, and her desire is that the program would foster resilience and tenacity in the students coming through--students like Brendan Corley, GAC Alumni Board Member and Associate Recruiter for ISG Partners. “GAC’s Academic Support is a program that genuinely means a lot to me. Growing up, I was always the ADHD kid who couldn't stay seated in class, constantly getting distracted. From 2nd grade to 12th grade, I was in academic support at some point every day. The teachers in Academic Support all played a vital role in my education. Kids who are the “class clown” often internally have a low self-esteem about their own academic ability. Academic Support taught me that I wasn’t incapable of learning, I just had different ways of learning, and the program does a truly unbelievable job of finding the best teaching methods possible for each individual student. There are a lot of schools that would encourage kids who are falling behind academically to find a new place of education. I think the way in which our school commits to helping individuals with learning differences is a really really special thing, and I definitely would not be an alumnus of DePaul University without that foundation of learning that was built for me through the Academic Support Program. I cannot say enough about that program; it is so special and it speaks to how much GAC cares about the person and not the pedigree”.

Over the last 15 years, Crystal has worked with students in public and private schools in Maryland, North Carolina, and Georgia. Her training started at the University of North Carolina and the University of Massachusetts, where she obtained degrees in Psychology and Communication Disorders, respectively. At Massachusetts, she had the opportunity to work with the celebrated Dr. Harry Seymour in the area of child language disorders. She was part of the project to develop a dialect-sensitive language and learning assessment.

The re-establishment of the Academic Support Program in the elementary school brought Crystal to GAC where she has worked for the last three years. Her current position as K-12 Learning Advocate is endowed by the Williams Family Foundation and the Parker family, who saw the incredible value in having an Academic Support Program at GAC. She is grateful for the role and the opportunity to serve students. But she also supports teachers as well through her work as Instructional Lead Teacher. She works with the Director of Academics and Teacher Growth to identify learning goals for K-12 curriculum and curriculum development, assessing and adapting instructional approaches based on data, national trends, and the GAC mission. “We are always learning”. That is fitting for Crystal, her students, and GAC as a whole. “You never reach the level where there is not more to learn. We should always foster an environment of lifelong learning and excitement for discovering new strategies for growth”.