Clay Kaufman chats with a foreman at the site of The Siena School’s expansion project. Photo by Mike Diegel.

A Silver Spring private school is undergoing a major expansion project to allow it to serve more special needs students.

The Siena School at 1300 Forest Glen Road serves “bright, college-bound students with mild to moderate language-based learning differences,” said Clay Kaufman, one of two heads of the school. “They are one or two grade levels behind in their reading and writing. It’s the language-based learning differences they struggle with.

“These kids are big thinkers, they’re very entrepreneurial, they’re very hands on and experiential learners, very strong visually,” he continued, “so when you use the arts and you use a multisensory approach—visuals, music, hands on activities, field trips . . . this is what helps our kids learn best.”

The school was founded in 2006, renting space in the Montgomery Hills Baptist Church. They bought their current location from the Boys and Girls Club, renovated the space and moved into the building in January 2013.

The first-year enrollment was about 30 students in grades 5-9 and is now up to about 112 students in grades 4-12. The school is adding about 16,000 square feet in a two-part expansion that will allow them to serve 160-170 students.

“The neighbors have been tremendously supportive,” said Kaufman, who’s been with the school for 10 years, “and we undertake all sorts of activities in the neighborhood.”

Those include Earth Day clean ups, working with Weed Warriors and Friends of Sligo Creek to eliminate invasive weeds and trash, even a bridge club that plays cards with attendees at the Schweinhart Senior Center nearby.

An important part of the school’s mission is to help the students find their passions and strengths, said Kaufman.

“We find ways to help these kids discover what they love and what they’re good at. One way we do that is with the high school internship program,” he said.

Each student during every year in high school takes a two-week, 60-hour internship in the community, including art studios, veterinary clinics, shadowing a neurosurgeon, work at the National Institutes for Health, at businesses or law firms, and so forth. In addition to the job experience, it helps students implement the skills they’re learning, such as self-advocacy.

“[They have] that experience of going to work for two weeks every day,” Kaufman said, “and [it helps] them realize, ‘Wow, that’s something I would love to do.’”

Mike Diegel

Co-Founder/Editor at Source of the Spring
Mike Diegel, a founding member of Source of the Spring, is a Silver Spring advocate who has been appointed by the county executive to several committees and task forces. He currently is a member of the Silver Spring Arts & Entertainment District Advisory Committee. His background is in journalism and he earned a bachelor of arts in communications from McDaniel College. He is self-employed as a communications consultant and is an active volunteer with Appalachian Great Pyrenees Rescue. He has lived for more than 20 years in Northwood/Four Corners with his wife Trish and multiple Great Pyrenees dogs. He is better known around Silver Spring as the Guy with the Big White Dogs.
School expanding to better serve special needs students