In Depth: Special needs schools and how dedicated programs help students
Many private schools across the country offer highly tailored learning environments, each catering to different needs.
Every child learns differently. Some thrive in relaxed, laissez-faire environments, while others require structure and rules. Some work well in large groups; others need more one-on-one attention. Some students excel in all-girl or all-boy schools and others benefit from coed classes.
At the end of the day, it is up to parents to find the right fit for their child.
Canadian families often have a hard time addressing the special learning requirements of their child and, in the past, were forced to navigate their way through the public school system with little guidance. Many private schools across the country offer highly tailored learning environments, each catering to different needs. Whether a child has dyslexia or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), physical disabilities, cognitive or memory disorders, emotional and behavioural challenges, or just needs an extra push, there is a school for your child.
Here, we give you a closer look at a cross-section of schools geared to students with unique learning challenges. This can be used as a launching pad to help you find the right school for your child. For more in-depth coverage, read our comprehensive guide to special needs schools.
Strengthening mental weaknesses
When Andrea Peirson graduated from teacher's college six years ago, she wanted to make an impact. With The Arrowsmith School, a midtown Toronto elementary and secondary day school for students with learning disabilities, she knew she'd found her niche.
"I was amazed at what I saw and found it inspiring," recalls Peirson, who went on to teach at the school and is now also director of admissions and in charge of teacher training.
The coed school focuses on strengthening mental weaknesses. Most of the students possess average or above-average intelligence, but have trouble in areas such as reading, writing, mathematics, remembering and understanding; some have dyslexia or ADD.
Each student is tested to determine the nature of the disability, then prescribed "physiotherapy for the brain," as Peirson refers to it: a series of written, visual, auditory and computer exercises to strengthen learning capacities. The goal is to maximize a child's learning abilities within three to four years, and reintegrate them back into a regular school at the appropriate grade level.
"When students first come here, they feel depressed, anxious and have low self-esteem," Peirson says. "When they leave, they can read, write and think, and feel powerful in the world."
A commitment to work with each student's learning style
Throughout its 30 years, the Chisholm Academy High School in Oakville, Ontario, has been a haven for thousands of students with learning disabilities and attention issues. They come for the structured environment, individualized programs and small classes of no more than 12 students.
Dr. Howard Bernstein, founder and director, has seen the results first-hand.
"There was one child who was classically dyslexic when he came here, and he now has a master's degree in education and teaches at a local Halton school," Bernstein says. "He still has problems with reading, but he has learned to compensate really well."
Chisholm Academy is intensely committed to comprehensive testing of all students. Bernstein and his team of professionals conduct psycho-educational, ADD, intellectual and vocational assessments, and educational evaluations to ensure students enter a well-suited program.
"Our main objective," Bernstein says, "is to provide academic programming for kids who need something special to ensure they're given every opportunity to be successful."
Emphasizing social development
Twelve years ago, Charlene Pryke was at a crossroads: she didn't feel she was making a difference or the most of her teaching skills in the public school system.
She started as an assistant and by 1995 had begun working as a teacher in Grades 1 and 2. She says it has been extremely rewarding to work with a group of committed special-education professionals in an environment with individualized education plans and an emphasis on social development and building self-confidence.
"You see directly the students' many accomplishments . . . you're actually a part of that," Pryke says.
Dunblaine offers a skills-based academic program that follows Ontario education guidelines.
In 2002, Pryke took the helm as principal of the school. She takes pride in the number of students who not only overcome their obstacles, but also go on to regular high school and even post-secondary school.
"Many feel that they can manage, and have the tools and the strategies in place to work just as successfully with the rest of society."
An environment of intimate, intensive, individualized instruction pays off
It's said the mark of a good organization is a happy staff, which is exactly the case at the Exceptional Learning Centre in Ajax, Ontario.
"As teachers, we often feel tired or worn out, but here we constantly feel inspired by the growth and development of the kids," says Lorraine Lewis, principal of the speech, language and learning elementary school.
What began in 1996 as a speech and language centre combined with modified tutoring evolved two years ago into a full-fledged special-needs school that caters to students with learning disabilities (both verbal and non-verbal), attention-based difficulties and Asperger Syndrome.
In addition to instruction in the traditional subjects, students also learn social, language and learning skills.
A staff of four educators, two speech and language professionals and a behaviour therapist contribute to the environment of intimate, intensive, individualized instruction.
"The kids work so hard, and it's extremely rewarding to watch them develop and become competent students," Lewis says.
A U.S. boarding school for dyslexic boys
His journey at the middle and secondary boarding school for dyslexic boys began in 1982, when he and his older brother were enrolled there as a last resort. Until then, Cotter confesses, the brothers had spent many years in public and Catholic schools learning more about how to outwit the system than about the three Rs.
At The Gow School, the boys found the kind of structure they needed. The oldest college preparatory school in the United States, The Gow School provides students with small classes, a multi-sensory teaching format and a technology-rich environment. Students are educated in all subjects, including areas such as fine arts and physical education, and receive remediation for their learning disabilities through reconstructive language, a specialized phonics-based program. "Without question, this was one of the greatest experiences I've ever had, and certainly had the greatest impact on my life, which is the reason I stayed here for 11 years," Cotter says. "Hopefully I can use my experience to motivate others."
Seeing a child with amazing potential instead of deficiencies
Depending on the nature and severity of your child's learning disability, an inclusive school may be an option. An inclusive school is a regular school that has made a commitment to gearing part of its resources and curriculum to students with special needs.
The degree to which special-needs students are integrated depends on the school's philosophy. For example, at Montcrest School in Toronto, about 30 spots out of 300 are reserved for the Learning Disability Program, wherein students receive intensive instruction in general subjects and support in developing self-esteem, but participate along with regular students in physical education, drama and music classes.
There are many things to take into account to determine a good fit at an inclusive school. "What should be happening is a matching process between the expertise and focus of the school and your child's requirements," says Sue Maxwell, admission director at Montcrest School.
Maxwell advises researching several different inclusive schools and being completely up-front with admission directors about your child's special needs. Parents should also ask the following questions:
- What is the school's philosophy on integration/inclusion?
- What areas does the curriculum cover, what teaching methodologies are used and what are the areas of expertise of the teachers?
- What is the teacher-student ratio? How much one-on-one instruction and support will a student receive?
- If a child excels, might he/she be fully integrated one day?
- Does the school maintain contact with parents? Could you contact your child's teacher for progress reports?
- Is the school wheelchair accessible and can it accommodate a child's medication needs?
A regular school with an inclusive learning disability program
In her 16 years as a teacher and now also admission director, Sue Maxwell has seen thousands of students pass through the doors of Montcrest School, a Toronto-based coed primary school. One student who stood out for Maxwell was enrolled in the school's integrated learning disability program.
This particular student came to Montcrest School with a language-based disability, but by the time her Grade 8 graduation rolled around, she was able to eloquently share her experience with the entire school.
"She had the self-confidence to tell us all about it," Maxwell recalls. "It was a powerful speech that left the whole auditorium silent - we were astounded."
It's a success story that Maxwell has seen repeatedly.
Montcrest School students with learning disabilities find a small, supportive group setting, with an emphasis on developing self-confidence. While receiving intense instruction in math, English and reading, special education students are also integrated into regular classes in drama, physical education and music. Maxwell says it helps the special-needs students develop self-esteem, and teaches the other students socialization skills.
"Regular and special-needs students work together," Maxwell says, "and the result is that we have a real community here."
Giving individualized attention to kids who need it
In spring 2004, Nik Papaioannou wrapped up his fifth year as a Grade 11 and 12 math and science teacher at Pinehurst School, but he'll be the first to tell you Pinehurst is much more than your average school.
"There is a real sense of community here," says Papaioannou of the coed middle and secondary boarding school in St. Catharines, Ontario. "Being a boarding school and small in size, we play sports together after school, take class trips together - the kids know me as a person, outside my role as teacher, and I get to know them . . . That relationship parlays back into the classroom."
The school's strong commitment to community is key to helping teachers carry out the school's mission: To motivate all students to achieve their potential in intellectual, emotional, social, physical and moral development.
To that end, the school offers students with learning, behavioural or social problems a structured educational environment with rigorous instruction in all subjects and intense preparation for post-secondary study. Students have the opportunity to better understand their interests, skills and abilities, to develop self-confidence and to forge effective social relationships.
"I find it very rewarding teaching in a school where the classes are so small," Papaioannou says. "I can give individualized attention to kids who need it."
Students who you think couldn't make it become successful
In 1993, 12-year-old Adam Beck arrived at the Shoore Centre for Learning in Toronto, unable to read or write. But that's not what Michael Shoore, admission director of the Grade 7 to 12 special-needs day school remembers most about Beck's experience.
"When he started here . . . he had a lot of problems with language and he barely spoke," says Shoore, who founded the centre 29 years ago. "I remember giving him a brain-teasing problem in spatial visual relations, and he got it in 10 seconds. I knew that he had a lot of non-verbal abilities, but his literacy problems were holding him back."
That's no longer the case. By the time he graduated in 1999, Adam had learned to read, and has since become a member of the national ski patrol, a waterfront instructor at Camp Kodiak and an air cadet.
Adam's story is one of many that underscore the success of the Shoore formula: dedicated staff, small group instruction and personalized education programs. All Shoore students, whether studying full time or enrolled in a tutoring program, have access to a safe and nurturing learning environment, well-equipped classrooms and structured lessons that encompass homework, study skills, projects and exams.
The programs are geared toward students with ADD, learning disabilities, head injuries, weaknesses in reading, writing and math, and difficulties problem solving, organizing, setting priorities and managing time.
"Students who you'd think couldn't make it become successful," Shoore says. "They are not limited by learning disabilities - they can go to post-secondary school and build careers."
Learning to love school and become a star pupil
"I don't feel like a ghost anymore. I put up my hand and someone helps me right away."
These were the words 12-year-old Michael Szumigaj used three years ago to describe his first year at Star Academy in Mississauga, Ontario. They brought tears to the eyes of his mother, Helen. Up until then, she'd understood that her learning-disabled son had been having difficulties keeping up at the local public school, but had no idea of the profound effect it was having on his self-esteem.
All of that changed at Star Academy, a coed primary day school that features specialized learning plans for students with learning disabilities, low self-esteem and ADD. Highly trained teachers working in small class settings tailor their methodologies and help students capitalize on their individual strengths. Students learn through a unique combination of academic study and social skills development, in a nurturing environment that promotes respect and personal growth.
The experience has paid off for Michael, who is doing well academically, has discovered a passion for reading and drama, and is participating in intramural sports. He's also shown himself to be a leader by taking on managing responsibilities for the school's recycling program.
"We would go to talent shows and science fairs, and what impressed me most was watching the older students in Grades 7 and 8 take care of students in the younger grades. If there was a problem, they would put a hand on their arm to calm them down and find out what the problem was," Helen recalls. "Because of Star Academy, Michael has changed completely and now absolutely loves school."
A supportive and intimate place for academic upgrading
For 12-year-old student Christina, it has been a life-changing experience that her mother, Eva, still marvels at. Up until the spring of 2003, Christina had been struggling through at a Mississauga elementary school, slipping further behind the other students as she tried, in vain, to absorb the day's lessons.
Then a friend told Eva about Wildwood Academy in Oakville, Ontario, an academic upgrading day school for students in Grades 3 to 8. In the fall of 2003, life for Christina took a dramatic turn for the better.
Instead of waking up each morning dreading the day ahead, Christina embraced her new supportive, intimate environs. She benefited tremendously from the school's direct instruction approach to teaching the full spectrum of subjects, which follows the formula of modeling, repetition, mastery, ongoing review and application. Wildwood trains students through individualized education plans, highly structured instruction and study-habit training.
What this meant for Christina was a genuine boost in self-esteem, marked by significantly better grades, a greatly improved vocabulary, a spot as assistant captain of her school hockey team, and even writing a short book for a class assignment.
"Christina loves to go to school now - she's always smiling and looking forward to the next day," Eva says. She has become a totally new girl.
Series: Special Needs Schools
- What is a special needs school?
- How do special needs schools support students?
- What are the main pros and cons of special needs schools?
- What makes for the best special needs school?
- Physical disability schools
- Developmental disability schools
- Special needs schools in Ontario
- Special needs schools in Toronto
- Special needs schools in Ottawa