Set Up for Success
Innovative programming and dedicated educators help students with learning differences move beyond their challenges.
by Mindy Toran

For many students with language-based learning differences, the path to life after high school may not be as clear cut as their peers. With guidance and support from their teachers and counselors, however, many of these students can move beyond their challenges. Thanks to innovative programming and dedicated educators, a number of local schools devoted to addressing the needs of these students are setting them up for success.
“It’s important to focus on the issues that have been preventing these students from learning, then focus on academic instruction,” says Kathleen Rosso-Gana, president and executive director of New Hope Academy, a nontraditional school for students in grades six through 12, with campuses in Yardley and Doylestown. “Our philosophy of teaching is ‘Head and Heart Before the Brain,’ focusing not just on the student’s education, but also on their psychosocial and emotional development. 
“We work on developing a relationship and mutual respect between the students and their teachers before the learning process can begin,” she continues. “For many students with special needs, the social piece is difficult for them and can hinder their learning. When we put them together in a small environment where they can get to know each other and their teachers on a smaller scale, it helps build their trust and their confidence, and their ability to believe in themselves.”
As students become engaged in the learning process, they receive strategies to support their individual learning styles. 
“We teach them memory skills, how to dissect a book in order to comprehend what’s going on in the story, how to write down and transfer what’s in their head onto paper by talking ideas through or scribing for them when necessary, giving them strategies to use to get the job done,” Rosso-Gana adds. “Once the kids begin to understand how they learn, we have them continually practice and use those strategies to work toward college or whatever comes next for them. Our goal is to help the kids learn as students, grow as people, and focus on the future.”
The Vanguard School is part of Valley Forge Educational Services in Malvern, which specializes in special education and employment support for students ages four through 21. Vanguard students benefit from a curriculum that emphasizes life skills and job-readiness training, and also receive a “typical school experience.” School musicals, homecoming, prom, student council, and art shows—all of these opportunities are a distinct possibility.
Students come to the Vanguard School to “realize their potential as contributing members of society,” according to Maria Pasquarello, the school’s high school program coordinator. Using alternative teaching strategies in an environment of emotional support, the school helps students focus on social skills to achieve their goals. By doing so, school leaders hope to prepare students for the next phase of their lives, “whether that’s working, living independently, or going to a trade school or college,” Pasquarello says. 
As students get older, Vanguard introduces vocational skills through its Work Orientation Readiness Center (WORC) and Community-Based Vocational Training (CBVT) program. The CBVT program expands students’ vocational learning experiences to sites of community-based businesses.
“We start with a lot of soft skills, such as time management, following directions, learning to ask questions, organization and planning, effective communication, teamwork, and problem solving,” Pasquarello adds. “The WORC program reinforces these important soft skills, providing students with several opportunities on campus to apply those skills, such as typing up weekly lunch menus and daily announcements, delivering mail and organizing mailing projects, designing posters for school activities, binding books and laminating paper projects, and numerous other hands-on activities.
“Our goal [with CBVT] is to help students get ready to make the leap from school to the next phase of their lives by providing work-based learning experiences and getting kids out into the community,” she continues. “We focus on teaching academic, life, social, and vocational skills that will provide our students with strategies for success, foster self-esteem, establish friendships, and help them build a résumé that can lead to employment and future opportunities outside of school.”
Attending college is a goal for many students with learning differences. At AIM Academy in Conshohocken, a college prep school for children with language-based learning differences, seniors participate in a dual-enrollment program with five local universities to get a taste of college before they graduate high school.
“All of our seniors go to one of those college campuses two days a week to help them prepare for college life,” says Andrew DiPrinzio, head of AIM’s upper school. “The students fully enroll in the college program, are in class with other college kids, and are graded by their professors. They learn crucial skills like how to go through a syllabus, how to manage a college workload, how to self-identify as someone with special needs and how to self-advocate and ask for accommodations when needed.” 
Students with learning differences have much work to do prior to reaching college, but that’s only just the beginning. DiPrinzio says schools such as his work hard to prepare students for the realities they will face once they reach college.
“Many of our students are doing well here but aren’t sure how they’ll measure up against neurotypical kids once they get to college,” he adds. “When they’re graded by an actual college professor and they get a good grade, their confidence really shoots up. They can see the fruits of their time at our school and how all their hard work has paid off. 
“It begins with setting high standards and making sure, when they come into our building, that the students are ready to learn and challenge themselves. We teach them self-advocacy, build their self-confidence, and help them take ownership of their own learning style so they can succeed, in our school and beyond.”
Rising to the Challenge
The majority of students in the Philadelphia area are likely well served by traditional public and private schools, especially if those schools offer inclusive learning-support services. Some children, however, will benefit from instruction in schools with specialized expertise in learning differences such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. The following schools teach students with these difficulties, among others, how to self-advocate, challenge themselves, and prepare themselves for employment and other opportunities once they have left their school days behind. 
AIM Academy
Benchmark School
The Camphill School
Center School
Delaware Valley Friends School
MileStone Academy
New Hope Academy
Doylestown and Yardley
The Vanguard School
Woodlynde School
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life, October 2022.