One Student at a Time: Admissions Team Opens Windward’s Doors to More Families Each Year

There’s an interesting phenomenon among families new to Windward. Once they begin to see a transformation in their child, they often refer to Windward as a “magic school.” This phrase pops up frequently in conversations with teachers, administrators, and fellow parents: “It’s a magic school.” The truth is, there is no magic behind what we do at Windward. It’s a science.

This scientific approach is evident in all we do, from our research-based, multisensory, explicit direct instruction model; to the 11,000 hours of professional development provided each year to faculty and staff; to the thoughtful development of courses for educators by The Windward Institute; to the ongoing study in collaboration with Haskins Laboratories, Predicting Literacy Outcomes at The Windward School (P.L.O.W.). 

Our Admissions Team at Windward is no different: The science backing their process occurs largely behind the scenes, but its approach is no less rigorous than Windward’s approach in all other areas. And while they must view each prospective student through a lens of data, they never lose sight of the fact that every family they meet is in crisis, in need of guidance, understanding, and support in navigating a path forward for their child. It's a balance this team strikes on a daily basis, between assessing a student’s suitability for the Windward program and providing families with the reassurance and resources they need during a challenging time. 

Meet Windward’s oft-unsung heroes, its Admissions Team. 

ToniAnn Hutchison: Director of Admissions 

Before moving to Admissions in 2018, ToniAnn Hutchison spent many years as a Windward teacher and administrator, offering her a unique perspective on the specific needs of our student body. Since joining the School in 2001, Ms. Hutchison has been a teacher at Westchester Middle School (WMS), the middle school math coordinator, and Assistant Division Head for WMS. Becoming part of the Admissions Team expanded her awareness to a completely different facet of the school. She explained, “Understanding a family’s whole journey before they get to Windward has been incredibly enlightening.” 

Being part of a family’s journey, essentially taking them by the hand to offer them support, has proven fulfilling in ways that Ms. Hutchison hadn’t anticipated: “I didn’t know what admissions really did until I was in it myself. I feel like we get so close to families throughout the admissions process. We form strong bonds and provide them with guidance and reassurance.” 

Certainly, having difficult conversations with struggling families has proven to be the most challenging part of the job. This can often entail telling a family that Windward may not be the appropriate educational environment for their child. “Our goal is to do what’s best for the child,” she shared. “By the end of the process, we want to have helped families understand as much as possible about who their child is as a learner.” Ultimately, Ms. Hutchison and the team approach these critical conversations with transparency—adhering to the concept outlined in Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead: Clear Is Kind—with an eye toward being part of the solution, not part of the problem. 

One common misconception that Ms. Hutchison and Admissions often have to clarify for prospective families is the importance of an applicant fitting the profile of a Windward student. She explained further, “I think a lot of applicant families don’t know our criteria. They’ve heard from friends or psychologists that if your child is struggling, go to Windward. Our program is not meant for everyone, so adhering to the criteria is a critical component of admissions.” 

Holding virtual information sessions has proven to be incredibly helpful for Admissions to share details about Windward’s unique educational program, as well as answer questions that prospective families may have. It’s equally important for them to maintain a personal touch, for example, meeting one-on-one and inviting students to visit and observe language arts classes. “It’s a nurturing relationship. We work so closely for months,” Ms. Hutchison noted. 

This effect on families—feeling seen, understood, and supported from the moment they contact Windward’s Admissions Team—lasts long after they sign a contract for admission. “To hear, ‘My child has been at the School for five days, and it’s been life changing,’ and ‘My child actually wants to do homework,’ it makes it worthwhile,” Ms. Hutchison shared. “It feels like we are doing something pretty amazing at this school.” 

Tristes Dunn: Assistant Director of Admissions 

In 1999, Tristes Dunn was working in the business world and felt compelled to make a change. One day, she came across an ad in the newspaper about openings at The Windward School for teaching assistants; she made the leap and never looked back. After laboring in the corporate sector for so long, working for a school was a welcome change, with Ms. Dunn immediately taking to the environment and the camaraderie she found at Windward. 

It was a conversation during a car ride with Maureen Sweeney, former Director of Admissions and Assistant Head of School, that shifted Ms. Dunn’s career path and cemented her future as an integral member of our Admissions Team. “I asked Maureen if Windward needed help in the office during the summer,” she explained. “Her assistant had left, and she and Dr. Van Amburg, [Head of School at the time,] later reached out and offered me that position in Admissions.” 

Ms. Dunn soon found that working in Admissions helped her feel she was contributing to the mission of the School in a different way. “Admissions is the reason for the season. Helping kids, helping families, is always at the forefront,” she said. “There’s a constant feeling of helping more and more of the community.” 

This drive, to help as many families as possible, defines the work of Ms. Dunn and the rest of the team, and the effect is felt by prospective families, as well. “The way our process is built, it’s designed to constantly reinforce and support the families, so they’re reassured by the fact that there is fundamentally nothing wrong with their children.” In fact, Ms. Dunn has heard from parents/guardians that it’s clear by the way she speaks that she truly understands their child. Families describe a palpable sense of relief when they hear “your child just learns differently.” Constantly reaching out to prospective families—with phone calls, via Zoom, through in-person meetings, and in virtual information sessions—creates a foundation of trust that is critically important. 

Because in simplest terms, the mission of Windward can be expressed as welcome, remediate, outplace, Ms. Dunn sees admissions and outplacement as bookends for one another. “We hold the school together this way,” she said. “Alumni families often approach members of the admissions team, at events and in the neighborhood, and describe the impact that Windward had on their lives.” 

Ultimately, Ms. Dunn feels most energized at the prospect of making a lasting impact in the lives of students with language-based learning disabilities and their families. “This is why we do what we do,” she explained. She sees a huge opportunity in expanding outreach through the department’s reading clinic, which offers free, virtual screenings to the public, designed to determine a student’s risk for reading difficulty and any need for intervention. In the long term, there is potential for scaling the program to serve even more children, to partner with organizations that provide advocacy assistance in students’ home districts, and to curate additional resources for families. 

“I truly believe our office—the amount of experience at play, the history—keeps this train moving. There’s something to be said for the camaraderie in this space, for who we are as people, and for how we feel about the work.” 

Dr. Erik Bennett: Tuition Assistance Director 

Growing up in New Jersey as a child with both dyslexia and ADHD, Dr. Erik Bennett could have benefited greatly from a program like Windward’s, a fact that informs his work on a daily basis. “The ability to help families like mine, and all those kids who have limited resources, that’s what keeps me here, knowing that I’m able to drive some of that change,” he said. 

In 2006, after living and working abroad for 11 years, including a tenure as Director of Admissions at Stockholm International School in Sweden, Dr. Bennett was ready to move back to the U.S. and chart a different path. Having always been a self-described “people person,” Dr. Bennett was interested in giving back to the community in a tangible way. "I was part of the volunteer ambulance corps for 11 years in Englewood, where I grew up. Helping people is an incredible experience. It spurred me to look at the general population with an eye toward, what can I do to help?” 

Facilitating tuition assistance, especially for a student population with language-based learning disabilities, has proven to be an ideal fit for Dr. Bennett, who joined the School in 2007: “It is so fulfilling for me to know that I can truly make a difference right off the bat with the family coming in, even before they set foot in the classroom. Affording the opportunity for a child to start out at Windward on the same footing as a student who can afford the tuition, we’re breaking down barriers, especially financial barriers, for that child to attend.” 

Dr. Bennett continued, “You don't expect to come to Windward; you come because you know your child needs to be here to be productive and prosper in life.” It is this awareness that underpins all efforts by the Admissions Team, but especially in respect to tuition assistance, to ensure that families are approached equitably throughout the admissions process. For this reason, Dr. Bennett takes on a behind-the-scenes role, not participating in the initial steps of the process but jumping in as requested to discuss tuition assistance. 

As part of its mission, Windward is committed to making a Windward education accessible for those who need it; this translates, in measurable terms, to a need-blind admissions process. When applying, families are not asked for financial information, and the application for admission is 100% independent from the application for tuition assistance. “If a child has gone through the admissions process, we’ll do everything within our means to make sure that child can attend, financially. We know Admissions has deemed that child will benefit from the program. The process is blind. We do not ask for a tuition assistance application to be completed until a child has been accepted or is nearing acceptance,” Dr. Bennett explained. 

Many families are surprised by the tuition assistance program being wholly separate from the application for admission, so Admissions outlines the process during virtual information sessions, encouraging interested families to inquire directly with Dr. Bennett. “It’s important for us to make clear to families that we offer tuition assistance, in a range from full tuition (almost 100%) down to possibly $1,000, based strictly on financial need,” he said. 

The tuition assistance program has expanded as the school has grown, from serving 59 students in 200708 to serving 183 of the student body currently. In future years, Dr. Bennett hopes to expand the program, with the eventual goal to have our student body reflect the U.S. population. “We have come a long way at Windward, but we have a long way to go.” In their efforts to continue increasing accessibility, Admissions provides additional avenues of financial assistance, such as supporting students in need of Windward's Summer Program, many of whom attend from outside schools; offering reduced to no-cost screening for admissions; and covering costs related to extracurricular activities. “We want everyone who needs to attend to feel there aren’t barriers to applying,” Dr. Bennett added. 

Beth Foltman: Assistant Head of School for Enrollment Management 

What stands out about the Admissions Department is the depth and breadth of experience that its team members bring to the table. Beth Foltman is no exception: She not only began her career as a teacher at Windward, but she has also viewed the School through the lenses of so many of its constituents—as a new teacher, a senior faculty member, an administrator, and a Windward parent. “I recognized early on that this was a special place,” she said. “All teachers want to make a difference, but, at Windward, we have the resources and the in-depth training. We are trained, we are taught, every detail about reading, language, and how to deliver instruction effectively.” 

Having been a teacher at Windward for many years, later Assistant Division Head for Westchester Lower School, then Director of Admissions, and currently Assistant Head of School for Enrollment Management, Ms. Foltman has built a legacy of deep understanding and care for the students we serve. As an alumni parent as well, Ms. Foltman deeply relates to the uncertainty and stress that prospective families often feel at the beginning of the admissions process. “It’s hard to accept that your child is not learning in the way you anticipated,” she explained. “For some families, this can be devastating. Some are scared—they don’t know what the right environment is for their child.” 

Ms. Foltman has found that one of the joys of working in admissions is that the team can provide families with the guidance and support they are seeking. With their inherent compassion, their expertise, and an extensive knowledge of both students with language-based learning disabilities and the efficacy of Windward’s program, the Admissions Department helps make the entire process feel reassuring to prospective families. “It’s not magic. But there is a way to provide these students with skills and strategies to succeed. We’re not changing potential; we’re providing the skills necessary to reach that potential.” 

Seeing a transformation in so many students over the years underscores the importance of the work Admissions does, as well as inspiring the team to continue to serve as many students as possible. To that end, the Admissions Department is committed to expanding access to the program, recognizing the need to increase the diversity of our student body. 

“We are in the process of deeply reflecting upon strategies to accomplish this longterm goal," Ms. Foltman noted. 

For children who otherwise could have been lost in their school district, who came to Windward not reading, who are capable and yet were struggling in their former learning environments, giving them the gift of literacy has a profound impact. “Coming to Windward, for our families, changes their lives,; Ms. Foltman shared. “[In fact,] it doesn't just change that child’s life; it changes the dynamic in a family.” 

If there is one thing Admissions would like prospective families to know, it is that Windward has the capability to make a difference in their child’s life. “The way we do it is using a research-based program delivered with fidelity, care, and compassion. What Windward does so uniquely and beautifully is to combine the right amount of remediation with challenge,” Ms. Foltman said. “With our families, it’s important to build that trust and make sure they have a clear understanding of who we are as a school. Windward students can succeed without limits given the right tools.” 

It is these tools, along with their trademark resilience and perseverance, that enable Windward students to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally when they outplace to mainstream settings. And as the School has grown, so has the Outplacement Office, which works closely with the Admissions Team. “The process is not just about admissions—it’s a journey. The two teams work together to ensure that the journey is smooth and that transitions are seamless,” Ms. Foltman explained. 

As evidenced by the many stories shared by our alumni families, Windward students have the capacity for unlimited success, with Windward playing a critical part of each student’s journey.

A Conversation With Admissions

The fact that so many families praise the admissions process is a testament to this department, a tightknit group of colleagues who embody the School’s mission in everything they do. 

Your team feels like a very cohesive, collaborative unit. What is your group’s approach to this work? 

Carly Lillo: It helps that we all genuinely like each other. We truly believe in the mission of the School. To know that we are doing something that may change someone’s life makes a huge difference to us. How many people get to wake up and feel like what they do matters? We’re all lifetime educators: We’re in this because we love the kids and want the best for them. 

Kelly Burke: As a team, we represent an accumulation of approximately 200 years of service to Windward, so we are a department of experience and dedication to the School. That helps make us a cohesive unit, having this extensive knowledge across all aspects of the School and its mission. 

Rachel Leone: Our care and concern for the students we see doesn’t stop once the admissions process has ended. We’re still talking about students we’ve admitted in previous years. We have genuine care for their progress and enjoy hearing about their many successes. It allows us to continue what we’re doing with integrity. 

Beth Foltman: We’re extremely supportive of one another. A perfect example is how this team pivoted for the pandemic. So much effort went into ensuring we could seamlessly continue to do the work we do for students who need it. We didn’t know we could do that until we did it— when this team was tasked with this challenge, we met it. 

Beckham Lindon: We even improved some processes by facing the challenges of the pandemic. 

Knowing each other as well as you do, how do you leverage each other’s strengths? 

Christine Ortiz: We all play an important role: from the bottom to the top to the middle, each role is important. It could not be done without all these pieces. Our strengths are different, for example, mine are different not having been a teacher. Our department highlights that. 

Laura Trifiletti: From day one, I felt like my opinion mattered. I was made to feel very comfortable, even while I was learning the process. I taught at Windward for 25 years, so I looked at it from a whole different point of view. I can now see how much painstaking work goes into this. 

Robin McDonough: We’ve all had different responsibilities at one time or another. These experiences contribute to our philosophy. 

Melissa Angelillo: We have all worked at Windward for a long time, in various roles, and I think that just strengthens our team because we can see it from different aspects of the process. We all use our strengths as a team to work to our common goal, which is to help as many students as possible. 

How do you acknowledge areas of growth in one another? 

Rachel Leone: I think we’re very honest. We can sit down as a team and talk about anything. Everyone’s opinion matters, and we approach tasks as a group. We pool all our resources to solve a problem. We’re willing to try something new and we’re willing to change. Our regular meetings, and our open conversations about what we can do to improve, make us stronger. 

Tristes Dunn: The sheer fact that we know and trust each other lends to that process. Acknowledging our colleagues with affirming statements on a regular basis helps. For example, saying “Hey, I noticed you were assertive yesterday.” We also support one another with little gestures, like bringing each other coffee. There’s constant positive reinforcement for everyone. 

ToniAnn Hutchison: It’s about having open lines of communication. Whenever there’s a concern, we feel comfortable bringing it up. 

Elisabeth Seocanac: It’s the most supportive group. The comfort level is there for all of us to go to one another in person and bring things up to ask for advice. 

Kelly Burke: Over the past several years, this department has evolved, and while we all have specific roles, our team truly emulates the phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” 

How does the School’s mission inform your daily work? 

Beth Foltman: I see a great willingness to listen from everyone. When you have people willing to listen and talk through a situation, you always land in a better place. Solutions are improved upon by discussion as a group. We’re always working to improve and be the best we can be for each other, for the kids, and for the School. 

Carrie Curtin: It's also important to share the mission with parents and families. We start by reading what the parents say about their child in the application. We spend more time with the parents. Part of the process is helping parents understand their child better. In some ways, the admissions relationship is with the whole family. 

Carly Lillo: We’re Windward’s first impression for a new family, and it’s not something to take lightly. 

A lot of your work happens behind the scenes. What is one thing you’d like people to know about the Admissions process at Windward? 

Christine Ortiz: We will handhold from the beginning to the middle to the end. There is always someone available from the moment they reach out, until they become an applicant, throughout the process of admission. There’s constant communication. 

ToniAnn Hutchison: We know that families have been through a lot before they arrive at our door. We want them to feel like they’re the only family we’re working with. 

Tristes Dunn: We encounter families who are frustrated and fearful. Our job can be difficult, because we sometimes have to tell families things that are difficult to hear. 

Rachel Leone: Clear Is Kind: That’s something that drives what we do when we meet with families. We’re not helping students if we’re not being honest. 

Tristes Dunn: People see our camaraderie, us decompressing and being kind and playful with each other, and it’s because this work can be challenging. 

Beth Foltman: One of the things that enables this team to say no is that it’s never our goal to have a child in a place where they may fail. When you interpret it that way, even if you have to say no, when you explain clearly and with compassion, you can help parents understand the goal: to serve the child best. We want to help every child. But we have to keep in mind that sometimes we’re not the right answer. 

Carrie Curtin: “We can’t look back, we have to keep looking forward.” We use this phrase in both yeses and nos. 

Beckham Lindon: We encourage families to come to information sessions so they can hear more and decide for themselves if it may be a right fit. 

Rachel Leone: If a family can leave us having gained a better understanding of who their child is as a student, we have done our job.