Feb 01, 2018 09:00AM
Photo by Tony Lewis Jr.
If ever there was and is a pillar of empathy, support, and vision for special needs youth in Chestertown community and the whole of Kent County, its Molly Judge. An educator at heart, in training, and in practice, Judge is the founding director of the Radcliffe Creek School, which, today, serves more than 80 students in grades kindergarten through eighth with learning differences and/or special needs. Additionally, there is an Early Learning Center, called Little Creek, which has more than 50 children in attendance. It’s a position she has fostered for more than 20 years and from which she retires at the conclusion of this school year.
Outgoing, passionate, and determined to provide tailor-made educational experiences for children and families, this Chestertown lifer’s inspirations have always been close to home. Judge grew up in the bucolic waterfront town as one of five siblings, whose parents “were supportive and encouraged my four siblings and me to always put forth our best effort, be kind to others, and stand up for the underdog,” Judge says. She would eventually attend boarding school at St. Andrews, in Middletown, Delaware, and then Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she graduated with an undergraduate degree in Special Education. “I honestly thought that I would not return and that I’d make a life for myself somewhere other than Chestertown,” Judge says. “But…
“After college I traveled across the country with my sister who had just graduated from law school and although we visited so many beautiful locations I came to realize that Chestertown may have all that I was seeking as I entered into the real life, adult world of making a career for myself and joining a community for which I cared a great deal.”
And so, Judge came full circle, returning to her hometown and started substitute teaching for Kent County Public Schools; she quickly landed a full-time position as special education teacher at Worton Elementary School. “And as fate would have it, I met my husband who also found the Chestertown community exactly where he’d like to live and work,” she says. “While teaching I completed my Master’s in Education with a concentration in Developmental Reading from Loyola University.” Life was tracking nicely and the couple would have their first of three daughters, Meg, born in May 1988, who would come to “challenge everything that we thought we knew about typical parenting,” Judge says.
“Meg has Autism, the kind that people rarely talk a great deal about. She is developmentally delayed and non-verbal, which creates challenges in communication, socialization, and self-care. My husband and I knew from the time that Meg was four months old, that we were going on a unique journey.”
This journey led Judge and her husband to find extensive resources nearby for her own daughter but left her curious about learning environments for students whose learning challenges were not as obvious or apparent as those with Autism. Judge’s natural curiosity as a Special Education teacher and parent left her wondering how to tackle this issue and ultimately envision an alternative to a traditional learning environment. Judge and other parents in the community felt there were many students who learned differently and needed a place that would embrace both their strengths and weaknesses. They rallied together and under the leadership of Judge, came to found Radcliffe, which opened in the fall of 1996 with 13 students.
Judge reflects on her parents’ influence and impact along this journey. “The motto in our house was ‘if you see a problem, be prepared to offer a solution, don’t just complain.’ My father particularly encouraged each of his children to do something in life that ‘made our toes tingle.’ I was a teacher in other schools of children who learn differently; smart children with difficulty learning skills that many of their peers picked up easily. Those challenges in children have always been what ‘make my toes tingle.’ It was this drive that allowed me to visualize a school long before Radcliffe ever existed, where bright children could gain independence, happiness, self-confidence, and a sense of hope.”
With Radcliffe’s success came accolades and in 2012, Judge was awarded the President’s Medal by Washington College for her sustained contribution to the quality of life in Chestertown, Kent County, and Washington College. More recently she was honored with the Mid Shore Community Foundation’s Town Watch Society Award, which recognizes individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership and service in the Mid-Shore Community region.
As she nears retirement, however, Judge knows that the final chapter of this journey has not been written. “I hope to continue this trek that I am already on, to build and develop relationships with individuals who have a similar passion in helping children find confidence, hope, and independence in their learning. My vision for the future is that Radcliffe Creek School’s non-traditional educational environment that customizes its instruction to meet the needs of all kinds of learners, becomes an exemplary illustration of Universal Design in education and it can happen here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, as well as in every community. Maybe that is idealism at its finest, but with a vision that something as grand as this could possibly happen, who knows?”