Shelby Balcom is just 15 years old, but she wrote a new page in the 87-year history of the Gow School, nestled on 100 wooded acres in South Wales.
A year ago, Balcom became the first girl in the college preparatory school’s traditional program, which is tailored to help children with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities.
Now she has company. Three more high school-age girls have taken the plunge, and Gow is helping them to achieve success despite dyslexia and learning challenges.
For junior Janna Milks, 16, taking a chance on Gow was a matter of survival. An 11th-grader, she entered Gow last September at a fourth-grade reading level and had hit rock bottom in a public school setting.
“I couldn’t read my notes, couldn’t spell or take tests. I kind of gave up and stopped doing my homework,” said the East Aurora teen, who is severely dyslexic.
“I knew my future depended on it,” Janna said. “The way I was changing was destroying my family. This place definitely changed my life.”
The four girls have become pioneers in Gow’s new mission to become coeducational.
For now, the girls are “day” students, since the Gow School – with 143 male boarders – is not equipped to house girls.
“More people know about us in major metropolitan areas than here,” said M. Bradley Rogers Jr., Gow’s headmaster since 2004. “We’re not ready to board girls, yet.
“Everybody knew Gow would go coed. The question was when. We realize this is new territory. It’s far from an impulsive move.”
Gow is purposefully taking its time. But Rogers envisions the program growing, hoping the school acquires a home in East Aurora where girls can dorm.
“This is a shift in programming that we want to handle with care,” Rogers said. “I want to honor the school’s traditions and grow the girls’ program slowly. I don’t want to overwhelm the school.”
Gow has been known as a leader in the field of helping boys in 7th through 12th grades with dyslexia. Its 4-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, smaller classes and individualized attention have helped it achieve success with its students.
Gow’s program has been built around boys since its founding in 1926 by educator Peter Gow Jr. – who had been an instructor at Nichols School and the Park School of Buffalo – with insight from his colleague, neurologist Dr. Samuel T. Orton.
Gow has come a long way. Instruction in the beginning took place in the woods and in tents, teaching boys with language difficulties. The year was 1922.
Four years later, Gow decided to start a school. Its first class consisted of 12 students and drew wealthy boys from prominent prep school families who resided in large metropolitan areas like New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia. As word spread about its success as a specialty school, it drew 100 students in 1961 and hit the 150-student mark in 1996.
Balcom is now making her way at Gow after having been a student in its summer program for three years. The East Aurora sophomore has officially joined the ranks of the 152-member student body, with pupils from 24 states and 27 nations.
“It didn’t really faze me. I didn’t feel like I was the only girl,” she said. “I love the individual attention you can get with your teachers, even if you are day students.”
The Gow experience has been invaluable for her. After three years of summer camp, she did not want it to end, her grandmother recalled.
“She had said, ‘I wish I could go here. Why don’t you take girls?’ ” Lynne Scepkowski remembers Shelby asking the school.
So when Gow called to say it was thinking of starting a program for girls, Shelby was ecstatic.
Shelby’s learning difficulties started with reading difficulties in second grade. Testing revealed dyslexia, and her tutor mentioned the Gow School.
“The adjustment has been good. She was at a big advantage because she knew so many of the teachers, and most of the boys were pretty nice,” Scepkowski said. “She’s been doing very well. When you have only five to six kids in a class, it’s so helpful.”
“I think Gow has helped her tremendously in her studies. She holds her own with the boys. She’s tough,” Scepkowski said.
Even her 13-year-old brother, Max, an eighth-grader, now attends. He enjoys the smaller classes, individualized attention and outdoor educational opportunities like snowboarding.
For Janna Milks, Gow has been a savior. She knew she could not continue the way she was struggling at East Aurora High School.
“The teachers there told me they couldn’t help me anymore,” she said. “My parents are very college-oriented, and they could see this opportunity slipping away from me. I had to apply and try Gow.”
Janna’s mother, Beth, is a teacher and does college consulting work. She knew her daughter had to try something else.
“She would do great on her homework and then fail her exams. The reality was that when she did her homework, my husband and I were re-teaching her everything she learned in school,” Beth Milks said.
In just six months at Gow, Janna’s academic success has improved and so has her confidence.
“The biggest thing she has learned at Gow is she has confidence and believes she can succeed,” Beth Milks said. “She now talks in class and is no longer afraid or worried about being made fun of.”
Gow, with an annual tuition of $54,000 (even though it offers need-based assistance), is a financial sacrifice.
Milks said their son delayed starting college so Janna could get the help she needed at Gow.
Kristen Klementowski, 16, also joined the Gow roster last September.
“My parents wanted me to go. I used to go to Park, and no one believed I was dyslexic,” said Kristen, of East Amherst. “All my friends just thought I was smart.”
But she said she struggled with reading comprehension, vocabulary and long-term retention and application of reading material. Since attending Gow, she also has excelled in music and theater. “I love it,” she said, praising the individualized attention and smaller classes.
Elma resident Emily Todoro, 15, became a Gow student in January. “I really like it. I feel comfortable here.”
In the last few years, a growing desire to serve the immediate needs of the community, as well as girls, has been emerging at Gow.
Rogers clearly remembers when he first broached the idea with some of the boys.
“I talked to the ninth-grade boys,” he said. Once the boys knew the girls would be expected to do house chores, as they do, and face the same responsibilities – even though they would not live on campus – they agreed.
Gow’s first call was to Shelby and her grandparents.
It’s not for the faint of heart, if you’re one of the pioneering girls.
“They have to be feisty and strong in character,” Rogers said. “We interviewed other girls who did not get accepted. They have to exhibit certain characteristics of strength, personality and grit. We can’t take ‘soft’ girls.”