Removing Barriers
At Center School in Abington, children who learn differently discover an “amazing” environment that gives them the confidence to excel
by Pina Rahill


David Mildenberg is a civil-rights attorney in Philadelphia, working for a firm that has taken on some of the most high-profile cases in the country. He is also a graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., which Newsweek rated in 2011 as the “most rigorous” college or university in the United States.


If you ask Mildenberg what lies at the root of his success, he will tell you unequivocally that it is Center School, which is based in Abington.


“I become emotional thinking about my experience there,” he says. “It was a life saver, essential to who I am. I credit them with everything—giving me confidence, education and the ability to believe in myself.”


Kathy Hunt takes personal pleasure in Mildenberg's success. In 1989, when Temple University Laboratory School—which had been serving children with reading disabilities for 43 years—announced it was closing its doors, Hunt teamed with University of Pennsylvania alumna Susan Floyd to start their own school, and thus, provide a place for both of their dyslexic sons to continue their education. Floyd brought the educational background and secured the license from Harrisburg, while Hunt, who had financial and business experience, assembled the 110 families currently enrolled at Temple Lab, devised a plan to hire the teachers that would soon be laid off, and developed a budget.


This was the humble beginning of Center School, which is Pennsylvania licensed and whose mission is to provide a supportive educational setting for students with a history of learning difficulties. The school opened its doors in September 1989 to educate 45 children, Mildenberg among them. Twenty-three years later, the school serves approximately 75 children, grades first through eight, in a 28,000-square-foot facility on 14 acres. The classrooms, which house anywhere from seven to 15 students, are spacious, lit with abundant natural light and conducive to learning. Overall, the student-to-teacher ratio is 4:1.


The majority of Center School’s students have dyslexia, a reading disability that occurs when the brain does not properly recognize and process certain symbols, but the school also serves children in Bucks, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties who have an auditory processing disorder, ADHD and other language-based learning differences. “These are children who need to be taught in a different way,” explains Allison Enslein, director of Center School. “Our goal is to provide students with the kinds of teaching that will enable them to be successful in a mainstream school when they leave us.”


For Mildenberg, who attended Center School because of a reading comprehension disability, that day came after sixth grade.


“I was getting the hang of it; I sensed a change and asked them, ‘Do you think I’m ready to move?’” he says. “In the Center School style, they listened and agreed that graduation was appropriate. When you were ready to move on, that was your graduation year.”


According to Enslein, most students transition to mainstream schools, either public or private. And while the basics of reading, math and spelling are of paramount importance, it doesn’t stop there. Enslein says the school wants its students to be people who are curious about the world around them, who are productive and caring citizens, and who believe in themselves and have high self-esteem.


Hunt, who is currently Center School’s CFO (Floyd remains involved as president of the board of trustees), says she finds that self-esteem is often lacking in the beginning of a school year. “In a few weeks I can see a change,” she says. “They walk straight, their self-confidence is rising, and they feel like they have a load off their back.”


Finding Success

Margaret Doyle of Blue Bell has witnessed the transformation firsthand in her daughter Adelaide, a Center School sixth grader who is dyslexic. Her daughter’s experience is defined “first and foremost by the self-esteem and confidence that came from Center School,” Doyle says, “and I didn’t think it would come as quickly as it did.”


“Our kids learn that they need to understand their disability, how it impacts them,” Enslein adds. “They learn how to advocate for themselves and understand which strategies to use to be successful.”          


When Mildenberg took the bar exam, he eventually got what he needed, which was time and a half to complete the exam. “It’s what I need to allow my mind the time necessary to read, comprehend and get my thoughts out in a written format. It’s unfortunate that, today, there are still barriers. But I was taught in Center School to accept what I had. It never goes away; you learn to cope.”


Doyle’s daughter will sometimes ask her mother, “You’re not going to take me out of this school, are you?” Doyle wouldn’t think of it. “The teachers are so ... amazing,” she says. “They really are passionate about these kids. They get them. They are on Adelaide’s side and have a way of making her feel like it’s OK that she learns differently and taking time in a positive way to figure out how it works for her.”


Similarly, Mildenberg applauds the Center School faculty, which currently numbers 17 professionals, the majority of whom hold master’s degrees and are certified reading specialists.


“In the end, it’s the dedication of the teachers and the staff,” he says. “What they do would be to some people so tedious and cumbersome. It’s their belief in children’s future, in educational and intellectual equality in all people—that because you have a learning disability doesn’t mean you can’t do what other people without disabilities can do—that makes it a special place.”


Center School

2450 Hamilton Ave.

Abington, PA 19001

Phone: 215-657-2200



Pina Rahill is a freelance writer based in Bucks County.

Rob Hall is a photographer based in Plumsteadville.