There are many educators who believe that children with special needs deserve options. When the regular school curriculum fails them – or it doesn’t take them to their full potential – there is a growing number of private schools with programs specifically designed to help fill the gaps.
These schools offer something far removed from the mainstream academic environment. Arrowsmith’s Toronto school and research facility, for example, specializes in retraining the brains of children with cognitive dysfunctions (e.g. dyslexia) so they can manage education – and life – without the need for multiple supports.
At PACE Academy for Gifted Children in Richmond Hill, eligible students have an opportunity to study with like-minded peers in a program focused on helping them achieve their full intellectual potential.
Venture Academy in Springwater, just north of Barrie, specifically focuses on providing adolescents children with behavioural problems with the skills needed to get back into society and on a positive career track.
Arrowsmith School has been an international success story since it was established more than 30 years ago. The original “laboratory school” in Toronto takes up to 75 full-time students ages six to adult, as well as conducts ongoing educational research.
“We offer a cognitive learning program for ‘rewiring’ the brains of students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, fine motor problems, memory retention and auditory processing,” says Annette Goodman, chief education officer.
These brain exercises stimulate the brain to improve processing capabilities, she says. “When students go back to high school, college or university, they have a different brain to work with. They’re no longer limited by their career choices.”
Adrienne Stanger spent two years in an Arrowsmith program after dropping out of high school due to learning disabilities associated with dyslexia. “I was having a hard time at school and needed an alternative program to finish my education.”
Now in pursuit of a fine art career through the Academy of Realist Art in Toronto, she says being in the program was a liberating experience.
“The biggest part is that it really shed light on the way my brain worked, and that’s very empowering. I found out I didn’t need to have a whole team of people helping me do what I should have been able to do on my own.”
For almost 20 years, PACE has been one of the only private schools in the province to cater to children from Grades one through 12 who meet the gifted test criteria based on a recognized psycho-educational assessment.
“People confuse gifted with high grades,” says director Barbara Rosenberg. “But unless you have the right program or they’re not appropriately challenged, gifted students’ marks can sometimes be quite average.”
The co-ed day school has 300 students, who take part in what Ms. Rosenberg calls “a highly differentiated curriculum” that focuses on higher level, critical thinking. “With these kids, the knowledge and comprehension are already there. We teach them how to apply, synthesize and evaluate that information. The goal is teach them how to think; not to memorize information and give it back.”
PACE encourages creative problem-solving using different strategies and methodologies. For example, if a teacher is doing a unit on the Middle Ages one student might plot the Crusades, another design an architectural cross-section of a castle arch, while yet another will create a ballad and perform. “Not all gifted kids like to play chess,” she says.
“These are wonderful kids, who are bright, curious and love to ask questions,” Ms. Rosenberg says. “They just think and pattern differently. Having a lot of commonalities makes them feel good. We’re fortunate to have them.”
Gordon Hay, Venture Academy founder in Kelowna, B.C., says he founded the school “because the public school and social service systems can only do so much.”
As a private co-ed school for adolescents, Venture first conducts a 30-day psycho-educational assessment on potential candidates to identify their specific needs and develop strategies to help them be successful in a classroom setting. “Unless you know why they are struggling, you can have the best counsellors in the world and they still won’t be able to process information or learn,” Mr. Hay says.
“When these kids get to high school, that’s when you see them struggling and acting out, often because their problems aren’t diagnosed properly,” he adds. “So they get singled out by teachers, ostracized by their peers, end up in special classes or worse, suspended or expelled.”
Typically students stay at Venture for a school year or longer where they study at the tranquil seven-acre campus. The Springwater school can accommodate up to 25 students. Staff members comprise a multidisciplinary team, which includes therapists, clinical counselors, and youth workers who work with the students through anxiety, depression, learning disabilities and/or other challenges they face.
Mr. Hay says Venture was created to serve as a “complement” to the public school system. “We’ve been credited with saving kids’ lives. Whether that’s true or not, that’s the way parents, and sometimes the youth, see it.”
Cited: Financial Post