Ms. Reuter Is the One Woman Army Behind FA’s Academic Support Services

Alice Tan, Lead Reporter

Ms. Helen Reuter, Falmouth Academy’s residential Learning Specialist, thinks of herself as a life-long generalist. An educator, a mother, and even an ex-professional landscaper, she loves exploring all kinds of subjects, obtaining an undergraduate degree in Comparative Religion and Masters in Plant Pathology and Education. A lot of the students she regularly works with are often impressed by the breadth and depth of her knowledge in fields across the Humanities, Math, and Science. With endless patience and a Renaissance passion for learning, Ms. Reuter has provided academic assistance to over two hundred FA students for the last eight years. Until recently, she has been the one-woman army carrying the school’s Academic Support Services. 

Prior to Ms. Reuter, Falmouth Academy did not provide any formal learning support and tutoring services. In a community that prides itself on building close relationships, students were encouraged to reach out to individual teachers when they fell behind in classes, but there were no official avenues for regular academic support. 

“The administration realized we needed to bring on someone who can help these students to live up to their full potential,” Ms. Reuter said, reflecting on her hiring and the beginning of more robust academic support at FA. “It was at a time where the school, like any good institution, took a hard look at itself and said, ‘wait a second, we’re doing these groups of kids a disservice by not acknowledging their challenges and by not giving them support.’” 

“People with learning disabilities are as smart and capable as the rest of us,” she added. “They may need accommodations or supports for learning differences that can create hurdles,” she said. “My role is to provide those students just that, allowing them to get over that hurdle without stumbling too much.”

Before Falmouth Academy, Ms. Reuter worked as the Director of Education at Penikese Island School and as an instructor at Cape Cod Community College, teaching biology, physiology, and anatomy. She shared an office with other teachers and watched colleagues help students with math remediation, which prompted her to consider working with kids with learning differences. 

By the time Mr. Mike Earley approached Ms. Reuter for a part-time job as a Learning Resource Specialist in the spring of 2012, she had already gotten a teaching certificate and had been tutoring for years. She is also certified in Orton-Gillingham, a teaching approach specifically designed for kids with dyslexia and other language-based disabilities. 

“I was quite familiar with Falmouth Academy because my twin daughters attended from seventh grade through twelfth grade,” she said, “so I got to know the culture. I interviewed and was hired as part time at first. It was immediately apparent that the need was greater, so I moved to full time two years later.”

(Credit: FA archive)

Jack DiFalco-Wheeler, a junior, has been working with Ms. Reuter since the second trimester of seventh grade. When he first came to Falmouth Academy, he struggled with the transition from his old school, where the course work hadn’t been as rigorous as at FA. He was having a tough time in math, science, and language. 

“I kind of skated through first grade all the way to my first year at FA because school wasn’t taken as seriously, ” Jack said. “I didn’t really learn how to manage my time or understand the concept of working harder.” 

With his mother’s encouragement and Ms. Reuter’s offer of assistance, Jack decided to use the school’s academic resource system for extra-support. 

One of the most important aspects of Ms. Reuter’s job is tutoring individual students and helping them find ways to engage with the curriculum. This takes up most of her time. She often goes over homework and reviews class materials with students during reach-out periods throughout the day. Working within the content of specific academic courses, she helps students to develop general skills like taking notes in class, annotating while reading, organizing thoughts for a paper, and deciphering math problems. When Jack first started going over school work with Ms. Reuter every week, he worked to build these skill sets. For classes like English, Ms. Reuter urged him to underline and organize the major points of the story. When he didn’t have a clear idea for a paper, Ms. Reuter would create a skeleton outline with him, helping to brainstorm the main structure. For a year, they practiced math problems and built Jack’s first science fair project together. 

“[Before seventh grade,] I’ve never really done a science fair. It was optional. For my first [serious] science fair, it was like, I had no idea what I was doing. And Ms. Reuter helped me like every step of the way,” Jack said. 

He remembered the pride he felt after the seventh grade science fair, when Ms. Reuter came up in the parking lot and congratulated him on a job well done. 

“Because I did really well in it. And it felt very accomplishing,” he said. 

It wasn’t until the ninth grade that Jack was officially diagnosed with ADD (Attention-deficit disorder), which, in retrospect, explained some of his difficulties in school. In seventh and eighth grade, he zoned in and out during German classes. Because of that weak foundation, he still has a hard time in language class. 

“I never focus well. My mom told me that some people in my family have a ‘grinder.’ They know they have to work two times as hard as everyone else just to get the same result. She says I have that. I do have to work twice as hard, so it’s difficult,” Jack said.  

He has improved a lot over the years. Mr. Edward Lott, his faculty advisor, likes to tell him that his progress reports from middle school to this year are very different. 

“Ms. Reuter is honestly a big help,” Jack said. “We’re trying to stick with everyone else, especially at school like Falmouth Academy, where everybody is wicked smart. It’s difficult. I kind of need help. And Ms. Reuter is the number one person I go to.”

(Credit: FA archive)

“I think my first words to her were ‘Thank you very much! But I don’t like help, and I don’t need it,’” said Natalie Todd-Weinstein, recalling her response when Ms. Reuter first approached her to offer academic support in seventh grade. The irony of the interaction is that as a current senior, Natalie has a robust working relationship with Ms. Reuter. In the corner of the computer room, surrounded by whiteboards and dry erase tables, Ms. Reuter’s workspace the place Natalie frequents when she needs a math review, Science Fair planning, or even somebody to vent to on a bad day.  

“She has become really an amazing and incredible resource. And I truly do not think that I would have survived FA without her, ” Natalie said.

Natalie had received help in public school when she struggled with reading comprehension from first through third grade. Though never diagnosed, she has always assumed that she has some degree of dyslexia, a learning disorder that runs in the family. She believes that she was a strong reader, but nonetheless felt awful about the additional assistance. The shame and discomfort she associated with assistance as a young kid imprinted a negative connotation to any offer of learning support. Despite struggling during the first half of seventh grade, she was not eager to seek help. 

“School had never been a priority of mine before. I didn’t care earlier,” she said. “I knew I was smart, but I had never been in a school community where academic success is as valued as it is at FA. And here we were in seventh grade. I was kind of thrown in with all these kids who loved to learn and were very smart. I didn’t see many other people needing help. Hence, my quick dismissal [of Ms. Reuter].”

Typically, students who need long-term, general accommodations or short-term, targeted instruction connect with Ms. Reuter at parents’ requests or teachers’ suggestions. Communication becomes an essential aspect of Ms. Reuter’s job, where she identifies and formulates strategies with various parties to support these students. She is the intermediary who advocates for students and communicate their needs to specific teachers. 

Primarily targeting the middle school, Falmouth Academy’s student support team consists of the School Counselor, the Academic Dean, the Assistant Head of School, the Middle School Coordinator, and Ms. Reuter, the Learning Specialist. Once a week, the group meets to discuss the learning needs of individual students and strategize how to best support FA students in general. This safety net aims to help students succeed academically and socially during their time at FA. 

“She was sicced on me by my seventh-grade teachers, who I’m sure sat down in a meeting and said ‘Natalie needs help,’” said Natalie. She knows that her name came up enough times in the seventh grade teachers’ meeting to warrant Ms. Reuter’s attention. 

Natalie eventually discovered that she felt comfortable in the non-judgmental atmosphere Ms. Reuter created during the meetings. The two mainly went over math and, occasionally, edited history and English papers together. Instead of the embarrassment she felt from repeatedly asking a math teacher to explain the same problem, Natalie found Ms. Reuter warm, encouraging, and never impatient when asked to review the basics. 

“There’s no ‘tsk tsk, you should know this’. I have never felt any judgment from Ms. Reuter. Maybe it’s me being sensitive, but there are plenty of academic teachers I like and have had good classes with that I would have felt judgment from [asking to go over the basics],” said Natalie. 

She never felt embarrassed handing Ms. Reuter writing drafts that contained a few misspellings and grammatical missteps. The come-as-you-are attitude reassured Natalie and encouraged her to set her own pace and feel confident about her abilities. FA’s Learning Support system became a playground for ‘trial and error’ when Natalie realized Ms. Reuter recognized her intellect, and Natalie felt that there was no need to impress. 

“My experience with extra help in public school had been this ridiculous opinion of ‘if you need extra help, you must be stupid in all cylinders and all aspects,’” Natalie said. “The teacher would expect that my verbal abilities are as low as my reading comprehension. I was talked down to and belittled. Mrs. Reuter has never given me that vibe. She just takes you as you are and recognizes you as a person and the fact that you are smart and capable.” 

Now whenever a math test or a paper is coming up, Natalie shoots Ms. Reuter a note to set up a review time. She feels so comfortable around Ms. Reuter that she sometimes lovingly refers to her as ‘Helen.’ In the pre-COVID days, Ms. Reuter used to send her off with a cup of tea after their meetings. After six years, Natalie attributes parts of her academic success to their relationship. 

Ms. Reuter has big dreams about FA’s Academic Support Services. Due to the high students demand, she has worked studiously to expand it throughout her tenure. She currently tutors around twenty-five students each week with the help of Mr. Dana Miskell, a part-time tutor who previously taught math at FA, and Dr. Bettina Freelund, the German III and V teacher, both respectively meet with around ten students. Looking forward,  Ms. Reuter can envisages a more unified student support space, including the School Counselor room, the College Guidance office, the Academic Dean’s office, the library and the new academic support room. 

When asked how FA can improve its Academic Support Services, Jack pointed out that Ms. Reuter is one woman tasked with a lot of responsibility, even with assistance of others. He also thought that the school could do a better job promoting this important resource.  

“There are a lot of kids with learning disabilities at FA,” Jack said. “It’s not always advertised clearly that they could be here without it being too challenging. It doesn’t do the best job saying you can struggle here. There are people here that can, if you struggle like me with focusing, help you manage and get on top of it. It’s phrased like a school you go to if you’re already wicked smart like you don’t need to improve,” 

This concern was echoed by Natalie. 

“We go to a school of ridiculously intelligent people, faculty members, and students alike. I don’t think that we like to say ‘I don’t know,’” Natalie said. 

Ms. Reuter has always inspired Natalie by openly admitting things that she doesn’t know, preferring to research and come back with an answer. As someone who strived within the safe space of FA’s learning support system, Natalie suggests that perhaps the rest of the community can also learn something from Ms. Reuter’s humility and non-judgement. She thinks we can all benefit from allowing people to not get everything right on the first try. 

Like Jack said, it’s okay to struggle here.