Chelsea School History

Chelsea School was founded in 1976 by Betty Nehemias and Eleanor Worthy, two Washington, DC parents of children with dyslexia, but the journey toward establishing the first high school to specifically serve the needs of teens with language-based learning differences in the DC Metro Area actually began long before that.[i]

In the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, disability rights advocates began to press for equal opportunities for children with special needs[ii]. Although some services (such as tutoring) for students with learning disabilities existed in the district at that time[iii], it wasn’t until Sally Liberman Smith began working with the Kingsbury Center in 1967 that there was an elementary school that addressed these needs, and no secondary schools for students with dyslexia or other learning challenges.[iv]

Betty Nehemias, a reading tutor coordinator for the Montgomery County School System and an early advocate for teacher training, began exploring the process for establishing a high school for children with dyslexia in 1970. Along with teachers Peter and Susan McKuen, Sue Clifford of the International School in DC and Babs Sausser, Nehemias petitioned the area school districts to provide for the establishment of the school; and attempt that failed due to “lack of suitable space and the existing educational climate of the time, the school systems claiming that the dyslexic students were being taught adequately.”[v] — a proposition that was about to be challenged.

In 1972, a landmark legal case in special education was decided. Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia was one of two rulings which brought sweeping change to the “existing educational climate” in the US as wells the District and surrounding areas[vi]. Stating that “…No child is entirely excluded from a publicly supported education consistent with his needs and ability to benefit therefrom. The inadequacies of the District of Columbia Public School System, whether occasioned by insufficient funding or administrative inefficiency, certainly cannot be permitted to bear more heavily on the ‘exceptional’ or handicapped child than on the normal child”[vii]. This case, and others like it, laid the groundwork for the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, and, eventually, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975[viii]

In 1974, Betty Nehemias was introduced to Eleanor Worthy and the two embarked on the second attempt to create Chelsea School. Eleanor Worthy was essential in gathering the materials for the new school, including the extensive library, furniture and equipment required, while Nehemias continued to raise support among educators and establish the case for subsidizing a high school for students who learn differently. In 1975 the two drafted a Health and Welfare proposal in order to secure funding. Sally Liberman Smith, who had, at this time, just developed the Middle School program at the Kingsbury Lab School, endorsed the new high school as meeting “a crucial need in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area,” and added that “Investing in Chelsea School is investing in the promise of youth.”[ix]

Although the school was not funded, the document, which still resides in the office of Chelsea’s head-of-school, served as a “blueprint” for the creation of the school. [x]

In 1976, using a line of credit Dr. and Mrs. Nehemias had established (as required by the Maryland State Department of Education), Chelsea School was incorporated as a non-profit organization and the Board of Governors, consisting of parents, educators and supporters from the community, was officially formed.

Chelsea School’s first class began in 1977, consisted of 16 students, and was taught by 5 faculty members in a temporary location, The Briggs Memorial Baptist Church in Bethesda, MD. In 1978, the school moved into the Jesup Blair Mansion in Silver Spring, and held their first graduation.

In 1980, Chelsea received the MSDE seal of approval and became a member of Association of Independent Schools of The Greater Washington Area. As the school expanded, the Board of Governors began searching for a new, larger location. Many buildings were investigated, including the former Radnor Elementary School in Bethesda, which Chelsea bid on in 1985, but failed to secure due to concerns about needed renovations and objections from the neighborhood.[xi]

The year 1989 was a watershed for Chelsea School. In that year, the school made a major evolutionary shift in its focus by admitting publicly-funded students from Washington, DC, Virginia, and Maryland. Chelsea School had always been dedicated to those students who were not adequately served; however, now admittance to the program could be extended to students who would not have had the economic means otherwise. Chelsea School’s program model of educating children with learning disabilities was expanded to include children who would not have had the economic means to attend a school that met their individual needs.

That same year, Chelsea secured its new building, the former Academy of The Holy Names. The property, included a 3.4 acre parcel of land and was originally leased by the school before it a plan was put laid out to purchase it in 1999, along with the Riggs/Thompson House and grounds at 711 Pershing Drive,[xii] where the school resided until 2013. Today, Chelsea School occupies a new campus on the top floor of 2970 Belcrest Center Drive, featuring state-of-the-art classrooms and technology.

Since its founding in 1976, our school has been through many changes, and has changed the lives of hundreds of students. Throughout, Chelsea’s mission and guiding values remain unchanged. Our commitment to small classes, individualized multi-sensory instruction, explicit direction and assessment, and intensive reading intervention based on current research is as strong now as it was then.

Chelsea School will be celebrating its 40th anniversary next year. Chelsea’s 40th is a milestone for our school, and we have big things planned, including a spectacular anniversary event. Set to coincide with Chelsea’s yearly PTO auction on May 15th, this event will include indoor/outdoor activities, food, drink and special guests from Chelsea’s past. We invite all Chelsea family, friends and supporters to join us in celebration of 40 years educating students with learning differences.

In the months leading up to the celebration, we’ll be posting more of Chelsea’s history and facts about Chelsea School.

[i] From The Chelsea School Yearbook, Sept, 1981

[ii] http://disabilityjustice.org/right-to-education/

[iii] http://www.kingsbury.org/about/history_philosophy

[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lab_School_of_Washington

[v] From The Chelsea School Yearbook, Sept, 1986

[vii] Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia, 348 F. Supp. 866 (D.D.C. 1972).

[viii] http://disabilityjustice.org/right-to-education/#cite-note-5

[ix] Health and Welfare Federal Assistance Application (pdf)

[x] From The Chelsea School Yearbook, Sept, 1986

[xi] From The Chelsea School Yearbook, Sept, 1986, excerpted from


Originally published at chelseaschool.edu.