Every student with a learning difference needs a supportive educational environment in order to thrive, not only in school but also in life.
by Bill Donahue

Everyone wants to “fit in,” especially in our youngest years. This fact tends to create discord for students who do not fit neatly into the tidy box that standardized education has prepared for them. Chris Hancock, head of school for Benchmark School in Media, believes this may explain why schools such as his have seen “overwhelming interest and enrollment” in recent years. 
“We look to treating each learner, each reader, as an individual,” Hancock says of Benchmark School, a coeducational school for children who learn differently. “In reading, for instance, it starts with a simple acknowledgement: that teaching reading to Suzy requires a fundamentally different set of beliefs than teaching Suzy to read. The latter reorients the subject and privileges innovation over standardization. It invites, among many other areas, cultural and personal elements into the process of teaching reading. Students thereby connect and engage more.” 
Students with learning differences such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia often struggle in traditional learning environments. Sometimes their learning differences go unnoticed, or effectively undiagnosed, until their struggles become glaring. AIM Academy Executive Director and Co-founder Pat Roberts references data from the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), which estimates that one in five children has some type of learning difference or attention issue. This number has remained consistent over the past several decades, she suggests, but NCLD reports that few children are formally identified for learning disabilities, and only one in 16 children receive an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, in their school setting.
Since AIM Academy opened its doors 15 years ago, the Conshohocken-based school has seen enrollment grow from 24 to 383. Roberts credits the increase to parents seeking out evidenced-based literacy curriculum grounded in the science of reading. 
“The population is not believed to be growing, but rather awareness is growing for the early warning signs identifying that a child may be at risk for a learning disability,” she adds. “Many researchers have turned their attention to early literacy screeners as a way of identifying children as early as possible.”
The ideal time to make the most significant gains and to close any reading gaps is before fourth grade, according to Roberts. She cites research indicating that, after fourth grade, it takes four times as long to close any reading delays due to lack of direct intervention and targeted instruction. This has resulted in the push for early screening, even at four and five years of age; learning disabilities are not often diagnosed officially at that age, but the early warning indicators for risk can target efforts for more skilled teaching.
“At AIM, students join us at all grade levels,” Roberts says. “Perhaps the highest new enrollment occurs when students are in third to sixth grade, when parents request formal testing to identify why their child is struggling. Parents share with us that their children are often transformed when they start attending a school that is designed to give them the tools they need to succeed and the freedom to discover their talents and interests.”
The gap only widens the longer a student’s needs go unaddressed, according to Hancock. Waiting too long, he says, may cause some gaps to never close. 
“It’s why a school like Benchmark has thrived since the introduction of learning disabilities into the American lexicon,” he adds. “Serving grades one through eight, [we offer] a child-centered, research-based, innovative, and warm environment for our young learners to be comfortable being themselves and to learn about learning before those gaps grow. Their capacity to do so allows them to better advocate for themselves and fully pursue intellectual autonomy. Critical engagement with the world and innovative mindsets are more necessary today than ever.”
Mary Ellen Trent, director of admissions enrollment at Delaware Valley Friends School (DVFriends) in Paoli, says enrollment has grown significantly in the past five years. The school has added an elementary division serving children in grades one through five, but the school has also seen an uptick in enrollment among students in grades six through 10, both as midyear transfers and as new students to the community every September.
“Being successful and developing at the appropriate pace isn’t all about grades,” says Kirk Smothers, head of school at DVFriends. “Students who learn differently often have the experience of working harder than their peers, but seldom see the results of their work in their homework, tests, and other grades. When parents see a disconnect, especially one that persists over time or occurs in multiple subject areas, between their child’s intellect and the work they put in with the grades and other feedback that teachers give, they should start to examine whether their student’s needs are being met effectively.”
Although Smothers suggests his teachers often remind students that “grades aren’t everything,” he says it’s essential for children to feel as though they are on equal footing with friends and peers. 
“We all need to experience some amount of success in what we do to feel validated and to build resilience that we will need when challenges really get tough,” he says. “When parents see their child’s self-esteem and positive sense of self drop significantly, it is time to identify a child’s particular learning needs and to consider ways to directly address those needs, which often means finding an environment that understands and supports students like them more effectively.” 
There may be no “exact moment” when parents know they need to consider alternatives, but educators agree that the earlier a student finds a supportive learning environment, the better.
“More growth is typically seen in students to receive earlier intervention, and the wounds that come from being made to feel ‘lesser than’ can easily be carried well into adulthood,” Smothers adds. “My advice is that it is safer to ask questions and look early, even if parents find that their student does not need a change in the long run, than it is to prolong a ‘wait and see’ approach.”
Advocate, Learn, Prepare
Many students are best served by traditional public and private schools throughout the Philadelphia area, especially if they offer comprehensive learning-support services. Others, however, may be better off enrolled in one of the several locally based schools that specialize in educating children with learning differences such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia, or other unique needs such as autism spectrum disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities. The following schools offer an approach designed to teach students how to advocate for themselves, learn vital skills, and become prepared to succeed in life once they leave campus. 

AIM Academy

Benchmark School

The Camphill School

Center School

Delaware Valley Friends School

Devereux CIDDS Learning Center
West Chester

MileStone Academy

The Vanguard School

Woodlynde School

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, October 2020.