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Honoring a Legacy of Supporting Learning Differences

Shelby Tupper ’80 remembers the moment she went all in on a lifelong friendship with Barbara Novogradac.

In 2006, Shelby’s son, Grayson ’18, who was in 1st grade at the time, wanted to come home from his first-ever sleepover at his new friend John Novogradac’s ’18 house. He was feeling homesick and though it was late, Barbara didn’t hesitate to pick up the phone.

Shelby recalls, “She had Grayson next to her when she called. She treated him with kindness and as an equal. Barbara said to me, ‘We’ve got some things going on here and Grayson is considering whether he would like to stay or go home.’” Shelby noted that there was no shame in her voice, no humiliation, just a simple fact and a wish for Grayson’s well-being. Grayson did leave without sleeping over and Barbara, being the incredible friend she was, insisted on driving him home herself.  

Wisdom, Wit and Humor

Barbara June Novogradac was a remarkable person, remembered for her profound wisdom, wit, and humor. She was a powerful force, providing comfort and guidance to family and friends. “Truly she seemed to touch everyone in her life in some special and meaningful way, leaving each one with a bit of wisdom, or insight, or just a little chuckle over something amusing,” Mava Reif, Barbara’s sister-in-law shared in Barbara’s “remembrance of life” book. Kristi Farnham-Thompson, Student Wellness and Support department chair and Lower School Learning Specialist, acknowledged Barbara’s impact, describing her as an influential presence who challenged and inspired others to do better. 

Sadly, Barbara’s courageous battle with pancreatic cancer came to an end last summer. Her legacy lives on, however, in her passionate advocacy for students with learning differences and their families.

Compassionately Normalizing Neurodiversity

In the early 2000s, Barbara played a pivotal role in growing and expanding the Learning Difference Network (LDN) at Head-Royce—an invaluable resource that works hand-in-hand with parents and guardians, teachers, and Learning Specialists to improve the experience of all Head-Royce students. She became chair of the LDN, working side-by-side with other parent volunteers.

Under Barbara’s vision and leadership, the LDN helped foster an environment that promoted empathy and normalized neurodiversity in our community. “Part of Barbara’s gift to the School was her understanding that students should be aware of each other. She appreciated all perspectives and viewpoints and wanted to give parents, students and the wider community the tools to unmask. She had a great consideration of all perspectives,” shared Erich Tupper, former LDN volunteer and parent of Grayson ’18 and Remington ’16.

Together, and with other parent volunteers, Barbara and her team realized that there must be other families struggling like theirs. Barbara's vision extended beyond individual families; she aimed to make the LDN a comprehensive resource benefiting everyone at the school. “Barbara took the LDN to the next level and school-wide. Her perspective was that it should not serve one family at a time but everyone, all the time,” said Erich Tupper. 

This school is a stronger and more supportive institution for all students because of her,” Farnham-Thompson said of Barbara’s contribution. Decades later, the Learning Difference Network remains a thriving resource for information, experience, and parent, guardian and teacher education.

Continuing the Legacy

In honor of Barbara's memory, the Novogradac family established a gift in 2023 to support students with learning differences at Head-Royce School. This generous contribution ensures increased funding for students with learning differences, perpetuating Barbara's commitment to making a difference in students’ lives.

Barbara is fondly remembered for her inviting presence and captivating speaking style, but despite her charisma, she never sought the spotlight. She lived in accordance with her own code of conduct. ‘Be a workhorse, not a show horse,’ was a favorite among her many quips of wisdom. “Barbara was incredibly self-effacing. She was a partner with the school, not a crusader,” recalled Shahana Sarkar, Dean of Academics and Community. She simply wanted to make a difference in the lives of students and their families and worked diligently behind the scenes. “She would question why her name was being used,” Charles (CJ) ’15 joked, echoing the sentiment that Barbara cared more about making a difference for students, not being recognized for her efforts. 

Her dedication to students with learning differences stemmed from her love for her own children—Elizabeth (Ellie) ’20, John ’18 and CJ ’15—all Head-Royce lifers. Barbara was volunteering on campus one day when CJ was very young. She overheard him reading in the library—not very well, CJ confessed—which prompted her to assess him for learning difficulties. His dyslexia diagnosis was the first step in her transformation into a fierce champion for all students with learning differences. 

She loved her kids and would do anything for them…in fact, she would do anything for anybody’s kid,” Erich Tupper recalled. Shelby reflects on conversations with Barbara about that moment of discovery, when a person grasps a new understanding about themselves. That moment of realization that there is a reason and a name for their challenges why they have been struggling about observing ‘that aha moment.’

Ahead of the Wave

During the time of CJ’s diagnosis, there was a growing national conversation and awareness of learning differences. Advocating for accommodations, assessments, changes in classroom management and expectations were increasing. The world was on the cusp of a more scientific understanding of how the brain works. Barbara’s involvement with the LDN contributed to a shift in understanding within the entire HRS community. Some believe her work with the LDN completely changed the culture at the school.

The Novogradac family’s memorial gift in Barbara’s honor not only provides direct support to more students on campus but also enhances collaboration between learning specialists and classroom teachers to improve outcomes for kids. Additionally, it will assist families in obtaining assessments for their students, particularly those who demonstrate financial need. 

The grant's impact extends further by facilitating the development of a transparent framework with which to support students who display behaviors associated with learning differences and further connects parents to the support they need to explore and assess.

Inspiring Future Advocates

Barbara Novogradac's legacy continues to shine brightly at Head-Royce School and beyond. Her selfless dedication to supporting students with learning differences and their families has created a more inclusive environment for all students and left an indelible and instrumental mark on the community. The Novogradac family's generous gift in her honor ensures that her vision lives on, providing vital support, resources and opportunities to students in need. Barbara's impact will be forever cherished, and her unwavering commitment to making a difference will inspire future generations to advocate for those who learn differently.