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Q&A with Chantra Reinman, Assistant Head of School and Director of The Lewis Clinic, The Lewis School of Princeton

Interview by Laurie Pellichero | Photos courtesy of The Lewis School

Describe the mission and campus of The Lewis School of Princeton.

Like the town of Princeton, The Lewis School is both traditional and progressive. We are housed in a 100-year-old mansion, but our learning canvas is the town. We’ve visited Princeton Plasma Physics Lab to advance our STEM program, and we’ve hosted artistic events at various locations in Princeton. We use the YMCA for our physical education classes and Princeton University gym for our athletics programs. We also use the many cafes and ice cream parlors for special celebrations in our Lewis Community!

When Marsha Gaynor Lewis founded The Lewis School in 1973, her mission was “to educate and empower bright young people whose scholastic achievement and human potential are compromised by unresolved, language-based learning differences related to dyslexia, ADHD, auditory processing, and executive functioning.” For 45 years, that is exactly what we have done. Through our unique approach to teaching and learning, we realize the gifts and great promise of our children.

What is your role at the school and what is your history there?

Over 15 years, I have had many roles at The Lewis School. I was a teacher, a master learning therapist, senior test administrator, and head of the Upper School. I was also a dance instructor and the choir director. In 2012, I went on a five-year sabbatical to return to my roots of international education. With Marsha Lewis’s permission, I used the Lewis approach in Indonesia and Ghana. I integrated the Lewis multisensory mechanics of language instruction into the international curriculum and was able to marry it successfully to the framework of the rigorous International Baccalaureate program.

Last year, I returned to The Lewis School as director of The Lewis Clinic. This year, I am honored to take on the leadership role of assistant head of school. Throughout all of my years in education, I have believed in the mission and vision of this school. Optimal learning happens when a teacher addresses a child’s specific learning strengths and needs, and finds ways of integrating learning how to learn into every lesson without sacrificing the content of the lesson itself. When the mechanics of learning to learn are addressed, children are free to be the creative explorers they were always meant to be. We believe in the potential of every child.

Not only have you taught internationally, you have also been raised in different parts of the world. How does that inform your work at The Lewis School?

I was born in Thailand, but every part of the world has contributed to who I am as a person and as an educator. I learned English in the Soviet Union, and spent my formative years in Iran, Austria, and Switzerland. But it’s not just a global perspective that I bring to The Lewis School. My background informs my educational philosophy, and that, in turn, informs my work.
I was 10 years old when I found myself navigating the twin perils of fifth grade and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. I was a student in Tehran during a time when the city — indeed, the country — was in turmoil. By November of 1979, holding classes at the school was so perilous that a Persian businessman offered us the use of his basement for our classes. One day in mid-December, we were huddled together attempting to learn math when we heard pounding on the door above us. My three teachers told us in no uncertain terms to be quiet and then went upstairs to see what was the matter. Moments later, we heard noises of a scuffle. A classmate crept up to see what was happening and then barreled down to report that there were men with guns in the stairwell. My best friend and I clutched each other’s hands and closed our eyes. We all did as we were told: we were quiet. And then, loud and clear, Mr. Barlag’s voice boomed above us: “You have to get through us before you can get to these children.” After a long, tense silence, we heard the door close. Then, the teachers came back down the stairs and calmly continued with the lesson. From that moment, I knew one thing: I wanted to be a Mr. Barlag.

Now, over 30 years later, I’ve come to understand that protecting a child is not just a matter of shielding him from bullets. Ultimately, protecting a child means ensuring that he is given options that allow him to believe in his own self-worth and to discover the path that will help him realize his true potential. That is the work of The Lewis School.

Describe your time as a teacher in Ghana, West Africa, and how it relates to The Lewis School’s commitment to community service and philanthropy.

My time in Ghana taught me two things: The first is that The Lewis Approach allows children to succeed in both specialized and mainstream environments; and the second is that for community service to truly be meaningful, it must be connected to what students are learning.

As head of the English Department and member of the Curriculum Council, I taught language and literature to students from all over the world. When I taught my sixth graders Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water, I integrated the study of literature with service learning. The water crisis described in the book was made real to students when we went to Nima, a slum community a mere 15 minutes away from the school. They may not be old enough to solve the water crisis, but they were old enough to advocate for those whom they met but who have no voice.

At The Lewis School, both teachers and students are empowered to serve — and to serve in ways both big and small. While we have launched student-led initiatives like collecting mosquito netting, we have also served by singing with nursing home residents. At the heart of all service is the recognition and elevation of human dignity.

Are there any new programs at The Lewis School this fall?

Our programs are as rich and varied as the creativity of our teachers. We continue to excite the imagination with science, art, mathematics, and literature, and engage the thinker in history, music, athletics, and creative writing. Additional programs are offered in Speech and Language, College PREP, and after-school tutorials. With each class, we reinforce 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, and communication, while honing in the timeless skills of reading, writing, and organization.