On Target
At AIM Academy, students with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences discover that “everything is possible”
by Bill Donahue

Ellen Newman has vivid memories of her son, Robbie, struggling to keep up in elementary school. By the end of second grade, he still didn’t know his ABCs.

“Nothing was clicking for him,” she says, so she and her husband, Scott, took him to see one of the area’s foremost neuropsychologists, Anne R. Robbins, Psy.D., who diagnosed Robbie as dyslexic. Newman asked Dr. Robbins for suggestions on schools that could help him “be the best that he could be,” and the doctor had one: AIM Academy, a young yet innovative school in Conshohocken for children with language-based learning differences, grades one through 12.

The Newmans attended several AIM Academy open-house events, and she recalls seeing student after student brimming with confidence and intelligence as they stood up to share their stories, each reminding her of her own promising son. Robbie started attending classes in January 2012 and, very quickly, “things started to click in his head.” Life has not been the same since.  

“If you knew him then and now, you wouldn’t think he’s the same kid,” Newman says. “His self-confidence has been so different. His teachers really help the students live it while they learn it. They are totally setting him up for success.”

Such success stories have become commonplace since 2006, when Patricia Roberts and Nancy Blair opened the doors to a modest school with an ambitious goal: to engage children with language-based differences such as dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia, and help them become more confident, more curious and fully equipped to succeed in life. Inspired by The Lab School of Washington in Washington, D.C., which was founded by award-winning educator Sally L. Smith, Roberts and Blair wanted students to see their learning differences as strengths, as tools to help them achieve extraordinary things, all in a nurturing environment built on creativity, rigorous academics and athletics.

A lot has changed since then, including the school’s name and ZIP code. Formerly known as Academy In Manayunk, the school has moved from its original home in Philadelphia to a magnificent 61,000-square-foot campus in Conshohocken, with a student body of more than 250 children. What has not changed is the devotion of a highly skilled and uncommonly devoted staff, whose talents are continually honed through the on-campus AIM Institute for Learning and Research, which has been described as the region’s preeminent “think tank” for language-based learning differences.

To further sharpen students’ 21st century skill set, AIM Academy recently developed a framework known as the “Four Threads to the Future”: Innovation & Entrepreneurship; Sustainability & Global Competency; Science & Engineering; and Arts & Design. These forward-thinking curricula enable late middle school and upper school students to tap into their unique talents and pursue their personal interests while preparing for the next phases of their life, meaning college and the working world. Incidentally, 100 percent of seniors from AIM Academy’s first two graduating classes matriculated to college.

Roberts, executive director of AIM Academy, cites author Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants,” which details the factors that contribute to high levels of success. In the book he refers to dyslexia as a “desirable difficulty” because of its potential to help those who have it develop creativity and strengthen their problem-solving skills. The book also references a study by Julie Logan, a professor at City University London, which suggests that approximately a third of all successful entrepreneurs have dyslexia. Notable entrepreneurs and business leaders with learning differences include Charles Schwab, Richard Branson, Tommy Hilfiger and Steve Jobs.

“It gets back to the notion that if you learn differently, you are well on your way,” says Roberts, who adds that AIM Academy’s overarching goal is to get students prepared for “what’s next.” To help them thrive, the school has partnered with institutions such as Cabrini College, through which students can earn college credits and prepare for college-level work in their senior year, and the nonprofit Startup Corps, which provides guidance, micro-loans and other support to entrepreneurial-minded students as they develop businesses of their own.

“We’re here to help kids find their inner confidence and inner courage,” says Richard Sedmak, founder of Startup Corps, who, incidentally, struggled with learning differences as a child. “Some of the best success stories at AIM come from kids who, when we first started working with them, didn’t say a word in class because they were shy or maybe they lacked some confidence to participate or felt their ideas weren’t valuable. We’ve seen a complete transformation in so many cases.”

AIM Academy student Hallel Raphael is among Startup Corps’ many shining stars. With the help of Startup Corps, Raphael launched several culinary-focused ventures on campus, including the HR Smoothie Bar, a one-day-per-week venture that generated revenues of $4,000 in its first year. She has since embraced an ambitious venture called the Rising Chef Challenge. Scheduled for May, this culinary competition will showcase the region’s top student chefs while raising funds for the hunger-relief network Philabundance. The event has drawn interest from local media outlets, as well as the support of Main Line Culinary Academy, the Vetri Foundation and a number of celebrity chefs.

“I want to be a chef and restaurateur,” says Raphael, a 10th grader. “I’m interested not only in cooking but also in business. … Eventually I want to go to cooking school in Paris and then open my own restaurants here. Before AIM I could say I had no idea what I wanted to do when I’m older. Now I definitely know.”

More than real-life skills, AIM Academy helps students unearth something within themselves many of them never knew they had: resiliency. Page Buck’s two children—Oliver and Nina—have flourished at AIM Academy. Oliver, who was among the first 24 students to start at AIM Academy in 2006, is now in ninth grade, while Nina is in 10th grade. Both students have boldly explored new interests—robotics for Oliver and video production for Nina.

“At every turn we have been impressed by AIM, both in terms of outreach and ‘in reach,’” says Buck, who lives in Chester Springs. “Kids learn that everything is possible, and that is a unique way to lead and inspire. Ultimately what you want for your kids is that confidence to take risks; that’s the kind of grit you need to succeed in life.

“AIM looks at a child from a holistic perspective,” she continues. “They’re willing to look at all the pieces that come with learning differently, including the social and emotional aspects. It’s not just what goes on in the classroom; the teachers and administrators are vested in and have a long-term interest in [students’] well-being.”

Carolyn Carluccio, parent of a 10th grade student at AIM Academy, agrees. Her son, Joseph, started at AIM Academy six years ago. Early on, she says, the staff identified “the holes in his learning” and helped him, as well as her family, better understand the way his brain works in order to harness his potential. He has blossomed, having participated in the school’s robust robotics program, explored his interest in entrepreneurialism through Startup Corps and been actively participating in the school’s performing-arts program, including last year’s production of “Grease” and this year’s “The Music Man.”

“He’s reading Shakespeare and taking honors English now, and this is a kid who a few years ago could not read a full sentence,” she says. “I am so proud of him and of AIM. I don’t think there is any other place that would have prepared him any better for what happens next. Now there is no hesitation about thoughts of college, even though at one time I just wanted him to get through elementary school. … He has come a long way in a short amount of time.”

The same, one might suggest, can be said of AIM Academy.

AIM Academy
1200 River Road
Conshohocken, PA 19428
215-483-2461 | www.aimpa.org