For years, the Schwab Learning Center (SLC) has been a place for Stanford University students with dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other learning differences to embrace their strengths, address challenges and better understand the ways their minds work. With its new home at Children's Health Council (CHC) in Palo Alto, the center's reach is now expanding beyond Stanford to the wider community, offering high school students and students from other college campuses the opportunity to access its services.
"We opened the door to high school students in October, and we are already getting a very positive response," Schwab Learning Center Director Nicole Ofiesh said.
When the learning center moved to Palo Alto in fall 2021, the organization engaged Gil Gershoni and his San Francisco-based agency Gershoni Creative to use the "Dyslexic Design Thinking" process to help create an appealing, engaging space that reflects the neurodiversity-affirming mission of the center and the varied thinking styles of its clientele.
Ofiesh, a dyslexic cognitive behavioral scientist who has advised the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice on learning disabilities and test accommodations, and designed and co-taught a course on neurodiversity and design thinking at the Stanford School of Medicine, found a kindred spirit in Gershoni.
"We had a lot of conversations beginning with empathy about the lived experience of individuals with dyslexia and how they see the world," Ofiesh recalled.
Gershoni, a dyslexic artist and entrepreneur who has long worked to reframe negative perceptions of dyslexia and explore the intersections between neurodiversity and creativity, was a natural fit for the redesign of the center. He sees dyslexia as not a disability but a hyperability, despite the challenges it can present.
"To me, letters are negotiable. I tell a lot of children and young adults, 'Reading is linear, but as a dyslexic you can leap; you jump over letters; you can fly'," Gershoni said. That cognitive flexibility, knack for making unexpected connections, and "prismatic" way of seeing the world, he said, is what has helped so many dyslexic luminaries, from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, achieve big things.
"In almost every industry, there's a dyslexic at the top who is responsible for throwing out the rulebook and re-imagining the way we do things," he said. "If you acknowledge dyslexia as a strength, you realize that you are capable, you are brilliant. You see the world differently — and that's remarkable."
Children's Health Council's Palo Alto location is home to two schools for younger children — Sand Hill School and Esther B. Clark School — and it was important for the Schwab Learning Center to have a vibe that appeals to older students, from teenagers on up, Associate Director Nancy Lambert said.
Designed to be inclusive of a range of learning preferences, the multipurpose area, which Gershoni likened to an innovation lab, offers floor-to-ceiling whiteboards; cozy and quiet zones; a sticker wall for sharing notes about feelings and experiences; colorful graphics; inspirational quotes (including one from Charles Schwab: "I have never believed in waiting around for perfection"); moveable furniture; and comfortable spots for collaboration. Students are advised to "leave your assumptions at the door," and can stand or move as they work, and experiment with different tools and working styles.
As sunlight moves through the windows, letters spelling out "creative thinking in progress" are playfully reflected around the room in shadow.
The design reflects the center's emphasis on empowering learners and celebrating out-of-the-box thinking, as well as fostering a sense of community.
"Students gravitate to the multiple ways of engagement," Ofiesh said. "They can think without the typical constrictions of a traditional learning environment."
The center is endowed by the Charles Schwab and Helen Schwab Foundation. The investor and financial executive Charles Schwab, an alumnus of Stanford, is dyslexic, which he realized thanks to his son's diagnosis at the Children's Health Council.
"The SLC has come full circle now that we're here at CHC," noted Lambert.
In addition to personalized support on everything from test preparation to self-advocacy skills from the center's staff of learning specialists, clients can also now undergo diagnostic evaluations for learning differences right at the center, and be connected to Children's Health Council's other services if needed. One of the benefits of working with high schoolers, Ofiesh, noted, is that students can continue the relationship as they move to college, a transition that can be rocky.
"Mr. Schwab really wants us to impact as many individuals with learning disabilities and ADHD as we possibly can," Lambert said.
The Schwab Learning Center at CHC is located at 650 Clark Way in Palo Alto.