Melissa Bowen brings almost 20 years of school-based experience to SEAS. She dedicated her expertise to children within settings ranging from K-12 public schools, specialized co-teaching programs facilitating successful inclusion in regular elementary and high school classrooms, as well as the lead academic advisor for a clinical assessment team for children with ADHD and ASD.
A native of Oregon, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Oregon – Go Ducks! – in the School of Education with a major in Communication Disorders and Sciences and minor in Special Education. She earned her Masters in Speech Language Pathology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Her sense of adventure took her across the United States to a specialized school for Early Intervention services in Southern Maine. But a dream was yet to be realized. After spending most of her career in beautiful (but cold) Maine, she and her family were ready for a change.
Costa Rica was a dream of over 20 years, and an opportunity to help the international community of families through SEAS is a privilege more than Melissa ever could have imagined.
Video Interview With Melissa Bowen Director of the SEAS Private School in Escazú and Speech Language Pathologist
What is the history of the SEAS school? Who were the founders and why were they inspired to start SEAS?
“SEAS was inspired as, what has been described to me, as an emergency response to the special learning needs of 5 children of U.S. Foreign Service families. These children needed specialized programs and methods of instruction for them to demonstrate meaningful learning, of which they were not receiving in their current academic settings.
In a rush response, SEAS began inside of two weeks in rented rooms of the International Baptist Church (IBC), and the founders provided the appropriate academics. The founders, Lynn and Leslie McPeak, had come to retire to Costa Rica but found their extensive experience in education to draw them into school positions and a lot of tutoring.
As certified Special Educators, Reading Specialists, and School Administrators they offered a level of training and opportunities to students that was producing results and growth. This grabbed the attention of the U.S. Embassy, so when the original 5 students needed help, Lynn and Leslie responded quickly.
They made it a priority to hire U.S. certified teachers and specialists so that the needs of students were assessed and treated appropriately through a customized academic program, along with maintaining U.S. Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and International 504 Plans.”
How did you (Melissa and David) learn about SEAS? What attracted you to the opportunities and the risks of moving and taking over ownership and operation?
“After a few years, the McPeak sisters truly wanted to retire and move back to the U.S. but their baby, SEAS, needed someone who would share the vision and priorities they had put into place. The U.S. Embassy also had a vested interest in the transition of ownership.
A position was open for a U.S. certified Speech Language Pathologist, which is how Melissa found SEAS. It was a 20 year dream come true, and our family sold everything and packed 4 suitcases to move here. Family thought we were crazy. And we were, but it was a calling stronger than fear. Although the offer of taking ownership was proposed to us during our interview, because we were “perfect candidates”, we did not make that commitment until living here a few months and falling in love with SEAS and Costa Rica. There were bumps along the way to ownership, including location questions, but we were determined! It was a determination borne of a deep sense of responsibility to the SEAS families as well as our own two boys, for whom we could not imagine a better learning environment anywhere in the world.”
What makes SEAS different from other schools, learning communities or tutoring facilities?
“I could bullet point this, but it all boils down to environment, individual relationships, and quality of teaching staff. We are a large home with open spaces and classrooms with dining room tables rather than individual desks. Nature is immediately available for play in the garden, science center, and projects.
One of our most stunning features is the view of Poas Volcano from our dining room, and hummingbirds frequent the upper patio. Frankly, it is a beautiful place to learn. Our teachers are all highly qualified and most have Masters degrees or higher. Our specialized staff are U.S. certified (Occupational Therapist, Speech Language Pathologist, and Counsellor) so they know how to maintain an IEP.
The professorial style of teaching is naturally discouraged as teachers sit down WITH the students to connect, support, and understand them. The trust that is built with relationships leads to more risk-taking from students, deeper learning, and better connections between home and school. We use U.S. standards, but our teaching methods remain flexible to meet the needs of students. One method does not work for all students. Groups are small (no more than 8), so we all know each other WELL. This helps us hold each other accountable for poor behavior, as well as support each other when needed.
Social Thinking skills are integrated into the daily lessons as well as directly taught. Some kids come to us with a “survival” mentality both socially as well as academically. We have to undo those patterns of thinking and give them new, successful patterns. Then they can be kids excited about learning. We do not have one case of bullying, and we do not use that term on campus.
There are developmental stages to behavior that we catch ahead of when it becomes frequent, targeted, and controlling. All kids have mean moments, and all deserve to be heard and taught what will help all get along. Many children come to us for the safe environment we provide.
All the above, and more, make us more than a school or tutoring facility. That is why we use the term “community”.
How has SEAS evolved from the original vision of the founders to the current operation? What do we envision for the future of SEAS?
“It was never the intention of the founders to serve local families. We were also strongly encouraged to prioritize advertising our special education services, as that is one of our strong features. Moving from IBC Church was a great start to broadening our scope to serve more families that were looking for the high academic standards, customization, and small groups that the founders set in motion.
It also helped us form our own identity separate from the church, which was confusing to some who thought we offered religious education. In fact, we are secular. It also helped us build our identity as a large supportive family.
Our future is shaped by maintaining these values, but also affiliating with Clonlara for the U.S. accreditation. We are very hands on as owners and never want to lose that connection with our families and students. So we will remain small K-8, but hope to have a larger property in the next couple years for up to 50 students. We will also continue to offer the specialized services per U.S. standards.”
What is special education? What are learning support services? How do you customize curriculum and what does that mean for support services or special education?
“Special Education in the U.S. is for students who have identified learning disabilities that qualify them for special services from a Special Educator, Reading Specialist, Speech Language Pathologist, or Occupational Therapist. Disabilities may include ADHD, Dyslexia, Learning Disabilities in Math or Reading, Speech and Language Delay, and others. Learning support services here in Costa Rica serve those with learning needs, many of which a second language learners which is not a qualifying disability in the U.S.
So if a student has an identified learning disability, a parent has to understand what a school’s learning support services truly entail (certification of staff, programs used, pull-out or push-in services, assessment of progress and goals). At SEAS, the fact that we customize lends us the ability to have students in their grade level learning groups more. Pull out or separate learning groups are available for specialized programs like Wilson Reading, Articulation therapy, or MathUSee. It all depends on the IEP a student comes with, or what the parent and educational Team decide together.”
How do you serve, or what is your relationship with expat families? Homeschoolers? Local bilingual students?
“Here I can truly say we go above and beyond. Whether it be helping a student see their future classroom by Skyping during a lesson, or taking a family to Walmart for the first time when they land here, we love to be of service. It is an honor to do so especially for our Foreign Service families, whose children have to adjust to multiple moves every 2-3 years. Children have a lot to adjust to, and school websites cannot speak to the social or individual environments very well, including ours.
The more we connect and are available, the better a family feels about whether SEAS is a fit for them. Homeschoolers like us for the small student body and family atmosphere, as well as the flexibility to design curriculum. More local families are choosing us because they want their children to improve their English, or they like our environment, or they are concerned for the social situations at the previous schools. SEAS is not a fit for everyone, but once in the door people see more of what we are about.”
What does alternative education mean and how does SEAS fit into that description?
“I grew up in a public school household. My father taught at my high school for 30 years and we dealt with the terrible issues of two major teacher strikes. I love public education, am a product of its design, and believe in its purpose. However, deep down I feel U.S. public education is missing something. I don’t expect perfection, but there are a lot of diagnoses and labels and stress and homework and bullying and kids stuck and kids not getting services who could benefit and and and …..
After working in Maine public schools special education departments for 17 years, and serving on a developmental assessment team for a local medical office in Kennebunk, ME, and supporting families transitioning from preschool to public school for 5 years — I wanted something different for our boys and my work experience. Deep down, I am a therapist and want to make a difference. I am an educator and want autonomy. I am a parent and want to connect and support other parents. I want children to love to learn. They are wired to! So, alternative, to me, means to be creative without sacrificing standards.
At SEAS we don’t need someone outside of our community to decide what curriculum is mandatory, or how we are supposed to measure progress. Our parents are our Board, and we are back to relationships. It makes all the difference.”
What are the priorities for hiring teaching staff?
Certified, creative, familiar with implementing project-based learning and assessments, and I have to get the right “feel” in an interview. They are joining a family, and need to be ready to collaborate.
Does SEAS offer after school programs or camps?
YES! The options change based on student interest, but we have a technology group that meets 1x per week as well as drama, cooking, and volunteer options at a local veterinary clinic. Since we are family oriented, we usually set families up with soccer clubs we are familiar with, or yoga studios, gymnastics and karate. If our family is going, we are happy to carpool.
Do you have samples of parent testimonials?
Our Facebook page is loaded with parent comments and our website has many as well. I can bring a sample to read.
How does SEAS offer special support to families who are moving to Costa Rica?
Whether it is a new teacher, potential SEAS family, or confirmed SEAS family — we share everything we can think of to support. This past August we set up a regular Skype class time for a student who was waiting to arrive here and missed the first day of school.
We also connect with former teachers and even take people around town. It wasn’t so long ago that WE were that family that needed more than brochures and a relocation specialist. Even if SEAS is not the final choice, we are all still families trying to settle in and the support makes all the difference.
I refer to SEAS as a learning community instead of a school. We are recognized by the municipality of Escazu as a tutoring facility, and we do not have immediate plans to seek MEP certification. However, we are in negotiations for affiliation with Clonlara school in Michigan. This would provide U.S. accredited transcripts for all students.
We know of at least one other tutoring facility that operates this way as a high school, and their diplomas have transferred to University here in Costa Rica. To learn more about their process, I would connect you directly with them. By June, their MEP certification should be complete — which allows their alternative approach very similar to ours.
Current laws, according to MEP, do not specify that we cannot operate this way. So, in the meantime, I can say that we are of particular service to expat families due to the U.S. Standards. But according to Costa Rica we are not recognized as a “school” at this time.
SEAS – An Excellent Private School in Escazú, Costa RicaWith U.S. Certified Teaching Staff.
Founded in 2009 SEAS is a full service, international K-8 academic campus, comprised of a U.S. certified teaching staff. While the foundation of our program is based on United States’ academic standards, SEAS delivers creative and customized instruction to fit the needs of each learner. Students receive instruction that is based on grade level standards, as well as instruction that is tailored to where they are performing , addressing any academic needs they may have.
Specialized services include speech and language services, dyslexia assistance in reading/writing, gifted instruction, occupational therapy for fine and gross motor development, autism and asperger support, as well as academic support for children with a wide range of other learning disabilities and developmental delays. Due to the customization that takes place at SEAS, small class sizes are maintained (1 to 8).
SEAS strives to provide an environmentally friendly learning community where universal monthly themes and a strong social thinking curriculum set up our learners to be mindful community members anywhere they go.
The mission of SEAS is to bring nurturing, individualized, and strong academic programs, shaped by United States Standards and delivered by credentialed teachers, to the international community of families living in the greater San Jose area of Costa Rica. By maximizing the advantages of small class size, we aim to prepare our students for greater responsibility. There is no sink or swim, do or die, produce or perish attitudes. SEAS students learn how to learn and what makes their own learning special.
Find SEAS On Facebook here.
Email Melissa Bowen here.
Email David Bowen here.
Telephone: Costa Rica 506-8651-4185 or 506-8651-4136
How To Find More Students For Your SchoolPromoting Your School in Costa Rica.
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