Different World
Nurturing educational environments enable students with learning differences to harness their potential and shine brightly
by Jill Lupine

“There is no aspect of reality beyond the reach of the human mind.” So said Stephen Hawking, someone who knows a thing or two about the way the world works.

Truly, the human mind has proven itself to be an extraordinarily complex, powerful and mysterious thing. Think about the accomplishments of some of the world’s most prominent business leaders and creative thinkers—Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Tommy Hilfiger, Charles Schwab and Stephen Spielberg. Their accomplishments are all the more impressive considering the fact that each of these pioneers struggled with learning differences—specifically, dyslexia.

As many as 8 to 10 percent of Americans under the age of 18 have some form of learning difference, according to National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Loosely defined as disorders that affect the ability to understand or use spoken or written language, perform mathematical calculations, coordinate movements or direct attention, learning differences often occur in very young children but are usually not recognized until the child reaches school age. These disorders include:

Dyslexia: Dyslexia is characterized by difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words. As much as 15 percent of the U.S. population has dyslexia, yet only five out of every 100 dyslexics are recognized and receive assistance, according to the Dyslexia Research Institute.

Dysgraphia: Dysgraphia refers to difficulty with handwriting. People with dysgraphia often have illegible handwriting showing irregular and inconsistent letter formations, while others write legibly but very slowly and/or very small. In virtually all cases of dysgraphia, writing requires inordinate amounts of time and energy, ultimately interfering with a person’s ability to express his or her ideas.

Dyscalculia: Sometimes referred to as “math dyslexia,” dyscalculia affects a person’s ability to understand numbers and learn math facts. Symptoms of this disorder include difficulty with performing word problems and understanding fractions.

Dyspraxia: A form of developmental coordination disorder, dyspraxia affects fine and/or gross motor coordination. Children may present with difficulties with self-care, writing or play, as well as other educational and recreational activities.

An unnoticed or undiagnosed learning difficulty can impair a student’s ability to receive a proper education. Thankfully, the understanding of the human mind has evolved considerably over the past decade, which, in turn, has resulted in a remarkable evolution in the American educational system. In years past, students who struggled to keep up because of their learning differences were often labeled “slow learners” or “lazy” or “disruptive.” The identification of the aforementioned disorders, among other learning differences, has led to the emergence of specially designed educational programs and teaching styles that have helped these students thrive.

Although virtually every school offers some sort of assistance to students who need some help staying on track with their studies—Jack Barrack Hebrew Academy, a coeducational school in Bryn Mawr, for example, has an entire Resource Department devoted to helping students who have organizational challenges or executive-functioning challenges, or who need curricular support—a number of schools in the Greater Philadelphia Area are committed almost exclusively to serving students with learning differences. These schools tailor not only the ways in which they share information but also the ways in which educators interact with students on an individualized basis.

“A lot of kids find learning difficult because of the way they are being taught,” says Margaret-Ann Koch, Ed.D., interim head of school for The Concept School in Westtown, “where unique minds learn in different ways.” “When you deliver instruction one way and they’re not able to grasp that, it becomes a source of frustration. What we try to do is reach kids where they are. … They want to learn, but a lot of times kids believe they can’t do it because they haven’t been able to grasp the material in a more traditional setting. We show them they actually can do it; it’s just that they learn in different ways.

“We also work hard to educate the whole child,” she adds. “Academics are wonderful, but education goes beyond academics. When you get the buy-in of the entire child, then you can tell, ‘I’m reaching them.’”

Throughout its Chester County campus, which includes an expansive “outdoor classroom,” The Concept School provides individualized attention and hands-on instruction to each member of the student body—fewer than 30 boys and girls, in grades seven through 12. Each student benefits from a structured, customized and challenging multisensory curriculum designed to help him or her become a lifelong learner and confident self-advocate, according to Koch.

“We want [students] to learn to be advocates for themselves,” she says. “These kiddos want to work hard to do the right thing and learn the material. At the same time, they have to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry. I know you taught me this, but can you teach me again?’ It’s a life skill.

“The other thing is, we teach them about keeping their power,” she continues. “What that means is, if they think they don’t understand a concept, but you as the teacher know they have it, you have to say, ‘I think you do know the answer. Now what do you remember?’ …  It’s about empowering them in whatever way you can.”

In addition to The Concept School (610-399-1135, theconceptschool.org), the Greater Philadelphia Area has an abundance of schools where students with learning differences gain the tools they need to excel. They include:

AIM Academy
Founded by two mothers of daughters with learning differences, AIM Academy is a college-preparatory school for “bright children who learn differently.” The Conshohocken-based school serves students from grades one through 12, offering state-of-the-art facilities and educational programs designed to foster creativity, spark the imagination and prepare students for the next stage of their educational journey. The school’s graduates have a college-acceptance rate of 100 percent. 215-483-2461 | aimpa.org

ATG Learning Academy
ATG, which is headquartered in Warminster, is a nonprofit, private school that specializes in students with language-based learning disabilities in kindergarten through 12th grade. These differences include but are not limited to ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia and central auditory processing disorder. ATG, which also offers an adult program, provides an academic curriculum designed to equip each student with the essential skills needed to graduate with a well-rounded education. 267-803-1751 | atglearningacademy.com

Benchmark School
A Media-based school serving children in grades one through eight, Benchmark School offers a comprehensive academic program designed to benefit children who have, as the school says, “not yet unlocked their academic potential.” By tailoring its education approach to the unique ways in which each student learns, the school’s educators help each student master essential processes, executive functions and 21st century skills needed to help them excel in the future. 610-565-3741 | benchmarkschool.org

Bridge Academy of New Jersey
Bridge Academy, which is based in Lawrenceville, N.J., is a not-for-profit entity devoted to educating and empowering students with language-based learning differences. A comprehensive program developed around individual needs enables each student to reach his or her potential. The curriculum includes, but is not limited to, language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, art, physical education/health, as well as career orientation, computers/technology and occupational therapy. 609-844-0770 | banj.org

Center School

For more for than 25 years, Center School has been applying proven education methods to helping children who learn differently, from kindergarten through eighth grade. The Abington-based school’s faculty delivers personalized instruction to help students make the transition to the next phase of their academic and personal development. 215-657-2200 | centerschoolpa.org

Delaware Valley Friends School
Delaware Valley Friends School opened its doors to 21 students in September 1987. Today, the school 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. It also serves students with ADD/ADHD or who experience difficulties with executive function, organization and memory. 610-640-4150 | dvfs.org

The Quaker School at Horsham
The Quaker School at Horsham welcomes diverse learners who tend to feel out of place in more traditional educational settings. At The Quaker School, experienced professionals analyze each child’s diverse learning challenges and then work closely with each student’s family to design an individualized academic program to meet his or her specialized needs. 215-674-2875 | quakerschool.org

Stratford Friends School
Intelligent and imaginative students who find it difficult to learn in a conventional classroom setting find a home at Stratford Friends School, which is based in Newtown Square. The school provides a full, multisensory academic curriculum in an environment devoted to teaching diversity, peacemaking and social justice. Here, children with learning differences learn to explore and celebrate their strengths, both as students and as individuals. 610-355-9580 | stratfordfriends.org

Woodlynde School
A place “where great minds learn differently,” Woodlynde School is an independent college-preparatory school based in Strafford (a community tucked between Devon and Wayne), serving students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The environment suits boys and girls with diverse learning styles—specifically, those who have been diagnosed with language- or math-based learning differences such as dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia, as well as executive-function disorder, ADD/ADHD and central auditory processing disorder. Others simply require the nurturing environment of a small classroom in order to realize their success. 610-687-9660 | woodlynde.org

A learning difference can frustrate the student who struggles with it, not to mention his or her parents. But, as luminaries such as Einstein and Spielberg have proven, having a learning difference does not preclude someone from becoming a dynamic student, or a dynamic leader, blessed with the capacity to shine brightly.

“These are smart, hard-working kids,” says Koch. “They just learn differently than you and me.”