Rising to the Challenge
At Delaware Valley Friends School, students with learning differences discover how to tap into their potential
by Pina Rahill

Nicole Davenport holds a master’s degree in social policy and practice from the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently a recruiter for Germer International in Blue Bell, an executive search firm that has been recruiting for the pharmaceutical industry for 25 years.

Mike Rullo, after studying political science at Temple University, is now pursuing a law degree there. Though the school year has just started, he is actively interviewing for a summer associate position.

Davenport and Rullo both appear to be happy, confident and comfortable in their own skin. Both are dyslexic, and both are graduates of Delaware Valley Friends School in Paoli.

Delaware Valley Friends School (DVFS) opened its doors to 21 students in September 1987. Today it serves more than 150 students in grades six through 12 who have language-based learning differences such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and central auditory processing disorder, as well as students with ADHD or who experience difficulties with executive function, organization, processing and memory issues.     

The school prides itself on offering a rigorous college-preparatory experience that prepares students to be successful in college and beyond.

“I don’t know what would have happened to me if I didn’t go there,” says Davenport, a 2005 graduate, in a voice brimming with emotion. Davenport says she was told in second or third grade that she wouldn’t ever be able to read. When she came to DVFS, the teachers didn’t accept that. “They pushed in the most kind and supportive way possible. There were no excuses. They knew what I was capable of,” she says.

Davenport remembers a time in seventh grade when was taking her much longer to do homework and to get her readings done. “I had a teacher who said, ‘Yup, it’s going to take you longer. You have to learn to manage that.’ And I did because they helped me and told me I could. It was that mix of honesty and caring. It might take you longer, but are you going to let that hold you back?”

For David Calamaro, associate head of school, who has been at DVFS for 18 years, preparing students entails fostering a sense of direction and feelings of confidence and self-worth. “When students are in an environment of persistent failure, it’s pretty damaging,” he says. “When they come here and experience success, it starts to undo some of that damage.”

To help foster that success, DVFS developed its own adolescent literacy program based on principles from the Orton-Gillingham program, a multisensory instructional approach intended for students who have difficulty with reading, spelling and writing. Mary Ellen Trent, director of admissions, explains that it is the only school-based program in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey accredited by both the International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council and the International Dyslexia Association. Helen Mannion, a Certified Academic Language Therapist and one of the 35 teachers currently on staff at DVFS, helped develop the program.

“I can’t emphasize enough how individualized it is,” says Trent. “A lesson plan on Tuesday will depend on how well a student did on Monday.”

Rullo, a 2009 graduate, says it was the individual attention that helped him the most. “Everyone from the soccer coach to the English teacher is willing to sit down with you and work with you on anything,” he says.

When he first enrolled at DVFS, Rullo was struggling with writing. He turned in a writing assignment he characterized as “garbage,” but then his history teacher shared a writing template with him. “She sat down with me and worked me through it. It is something I used throughout college and still use today,” he says.

DVFS’s approach has had impressive results. Ninety-eight percent of students are enrolled in college immediately upon graduation. “The national average for a kid with a learning disability is 66 percent,” says Trent. “And that is within eight years of their high school graduation.”

Trent says that DVFS is committed to tapping into students’ passions and talents, as well as helping students work with their challenges. Note-taking strategies and audio accommodations, for example, help a student access text that might have previously been hard to grasp. “We help them apply their intellect to information in finer ways,” explains Trent.

She adds that the school gives students something that is oftentimes lacking in their lives. “When students come to us, they are often working with one to three tutors each week to get by,” she says. “We free them up and address their needs during the day. And here you have suddenly a teenager who is able to pursue a passion.”

Finally, Trent says the school helps students understand their learning profiles. “By the time they leave us, they are able to articulate their strengths, challenges and accommodations at a very fluent level,” she says.    

“I helped friends in college who didn’t advocate for themselves,” Davenport adds. “I know how to get what I need out of situations.”

While at McDaniel College pursuing her undergraduate degree, Davenport would talk to teachers about her workload. “If I had 15 papers over a semester and four hours of reading a night, I knew I’d need some of that reading recorded or some supplemental way of getting the material,” she says. “If I ever needed a question read to me, I would ask, ‘Can you read me this question?’” Other accommodations included flexibility with timelines, extra time to take exams, or the ability to use a computer to type an exam instead of writing it.

In Rullo’s case, after sharing his educational testing at Temple, he was offered the use of computers for taking finals. Because of his dysgraphia, he says that no matter how careful he is or how much time he takes, his handwriting is virtually unreadable. Using a computer helps him overcome that challenge.

Both Davenport and Rullo credit DVFS for helping them understand how they learn and what they are entitled to because of their learning differences.

“We unlock our students’ learning potential,” says Calamaro. “We look for all that is remarkable in our students so that they can see it themselves, gain confidence and take on whatever challenge they want to take on.”

Delaware Valley Friends School
19 E. Central Ave.
Paoli, PA 19301