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Early History of the NorthEast Association of Learning Specialists

by Founding Members, April 2019

Barbara Kenefick, PhD. was the brilliant and unstoppable force behind the founding of NEALS. Working part-time to develop a fledgling support tutoring system at Miss Hall’s and eventually at other independent schools, Barbara provided visionary leadership and expertise while continuing to work in mental health services for New York State. In 1981, she hired Vaunie Graulty as her Assistant Director at Miss Halls. Vaunie reports that, “although I felt 100% supported by the administration in my day to day work with students, I was, as were more and more others at their schools, quite isolated. Learning Specialists were far away from one another and there was little opportunity for professional networking. Many of us yearned to share experiences and learn from each other.” Learning Specialists shared occasional phone calls and informal visits, but since many of their programs were just getting off the ground, they focussed on their internal organization. However, Dr. Kenefick, consulting at Berkshire, Hotchkiss and Miss Hall’s in the 1990’s, encouraged outreach and professional networking, and so nurtured a nascent NEALS, originally called the New England Association of Learning Specialists. 

Joanne Hayhurst recalls, “In the spring of 1999, after a few phone calls, the Learning Specialists from a handful of independent schools got together for lunch around the mahogany dining room table at Hotchkiss School.  The group included Vaunie Graulty and Fredi Hungate from Miss Hall’s, Laura Vantine from Worcester, Matt Treat from Salisbury, Kara Ashley from Berkshire, Howard Bonis from Kent, and Carol Kneeland from Trinity Pawling, and I from Hotchkiss, all supported by our strong advocate and knowledgeable leader, the late Dr. Barbara Kenefick. At the time, she was sharing her expertise in psychology at Berkshire, Hotchkiss and Miss Halls. Support for the work of Learning Specialists and for LD students was tentative. The College Board still flagged any student requiring extra time on SATs, and college applications would unjustly indicate accommodations in taking the tests.  Providing extra time for tests made many faculty furious. Several of us felt as if we were working alone in schools that barely recognized and often questioned the need for academic support. ‘Sink or Swim’ was the going attitude. We worked in cramped out-of-the-way spaces, unnoticed and deemed unnecessary by our colleagues, who lamented ‘if the school would only keep to its high standards and admit only the right kids.’” 

“That small group sitting around a table,” Matt Treat concurs, “discussing our support programs, was spot on. It was so refreshing to discuss issues with other Learning Specialists from independent schools. We all set-up our programs differently, but we had the same concerns and worries. We all were thinking, were we doing it right? Were our programs working and making a difference in our schools? We were all operating in a vacuum with little to no perspective or feedback from anyone! Looking back on those early days, I feel our time together as a group was essential to our growth as educators. We all quickly became close friends, and NEALS truly was an instant bond among us. We communicated on a regular basis, sharing ideas of what was working well and what did not work in our programs.” 

Twenty year member of the Board, Kara Ashley, adds, “Many of us were working in departments of one or two people.  Barbara and I shared a windowless office for the first few years we were together and we were not alone in that. The group met about six months later at Kent to hear Nancy Brother talk about a recent legal case against Phillips Academy that the school successfully defended.  Initially, the group was nameless and without a central mission or board. At the end of each meeting, we asked, ‘Okay, who's next?!’ Host schools paid expenses and furnished speakers, and we typically had a fall and a spring meeting.”  

During the early years, Dr. Alan Wachtel, Barbara Kenefick’s colleague and psychiatrist with an active practice, came from New York City  to present on ADD. Dr. Mary Ellen Immordino, a neurologist who is now at UCLA, presented her early research during Rebecca Plona’s first year as president, and Priscilla Vail, ever ahead of her time, spoke about the Gifted Dyslexic at Fay School.  Members regularly travelled to NEALS’ colleagues’ schools to see other learning centers in action. Several of us went to Trinity Pawling to hear more about thelanguage retraining program and to Kildonan School to meet with Diana King. Across the decades, we shared our enthusiasm for Orton-Gillingham techniques for dyslexic students. On this topic, the students who came to Hopkins from Yale with Sally and Bennett Shaywitz were especially enlightening, but NEALS events have also included impressive students as young as fourteen, bravely speaking to large audiences about their school challenges and successes.

“As the size of our group grew,” Kara tells us, “we knew we needed to ‘go legit,’ create bylaws, and raise funds to offset expenses incurred by host schools.  On a wintry day in 2003, a small group of us: Barbara Kenefick, Marcia Rammuni, Matt Treat, and Joanne Hayhurst, serving as both secretary and treasurer, and I met again at Hotchkiss to complete the paperwork for legal designation as a 501(c)(3) organization.  A huge thanks goes to Marcia's husband, Paul Rammuni, who is one of NEALS' unsung heroes; he donated his accounting expertise to this fledgling group.” According to Laura Vantine, “As Joanne read through the checklist of questions, we were stumped to name our assets; someone tentatively offered, ‘Us?’" 

In 2009, a new interpretation of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) changed everything for students with disabilities in independent schools.  Learning Specialists were invaluable in helping schools to comply with the law, to meet students’ needs, and to protect their dignity. To that end, Dr. Barbara Kenefick and her fellow founders helped learning specialists and their students enormously.  NEALS grew. Schools better understood their responsibility to students with learning disabilities. Membership in NEALS provided professional clout with home faculty and Boards of Trustees. In 2011, the NEALS Board of Directors settled on one conference a year and structured smaller, regional meetings, attracting national experts excited to support the work of learning specialists and to quench the thirst for professional development and recognition. In 2016 with input from the entire membership and in completing its New Hampshire nonprofit status, the Board amended its mission to: promoting​ ​professional development​ ​for​ ​learning​ ​specialists​ ​creating community through​ ​collaboration,​ ​support,​ ​and​ ​advocacy,

And now, two decades after collaborating around that mahogany table, one decade after the ADA made important changes, three years into a comprehensive and successful strategic plan, and still inspired by the founders, many of whom remain members and contributed to this history, NEALS is thriving. Learning Specialists, working in beautiful, centralized skills programs and helping students to succeed in the classroom, are sought out and supported by faculty and administrators. Today, over 180 NEALS members collaborate and share cutting-edge strategies as they advocate for one another and uphold the NEALS mission to support all students. 

NEALS Leadership 

Emeritus, Barbara Kenefick & Joanne Hayhurst, 1999-2003; 


Laura Vantine, 2002-2003

Kara Ashley, 2003-2007

Rebecca Plona, 2007-2009

Matt Treat, 2009-2011

Susan Cole Ross, 2011-2020

Laura Foody, 2020-2023

Chris Ouellette 2023-present

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