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Thinking Outside the IEP

Does your child need more help? AIM Academy is a resource, inside and outside the school’s walls.

If your child has a diagnosed language-based learning difference, he or she is probably receiving special services through their public school. For many children, that’s enough.

But what if you’re worried that your child needs more help? Or you’re frustrated by what can be a difficult — and slow — process to change an individualized education program, or IEP, for your child?

Perhaps it’s time to consider a more immersive program. At AIM Academy in Conshohocken, students get as much help in biology as they do during English class. Instead of being limited to what an IEP calls for, students are immersed in teaching that’s focused on learning differences and literacy.

“Here for example, in a ninth- grade class, your history teacher, your art teacher, your math teacher, your English teacher, and your biology teacher all completely understand learning differences, they’ve had all the same training as a reading specialist,” said Chris Herman, AIM’s academic dean and head of the Upper School.

That can be huge, he said, because every sentence in a science or social studies textbook matters for ultimately understanding a subject well.

“You need that intervention in the classes that are the hardest,” he said. “And I think in the public school setting, that’s the place where you get the least.”

AIM’s experienced faculty has spent an average of 11 years teaching in classrooms and more than 78 percent of faculty hold advanced degrees, a majority in special education.

AIM’s college-prep program is designed to play to the strengths of individual students, Herman said. Students can take electives like media arts or robotics without sacrificing any time with specialists — because all the teachers are specialists.

AIM’s small classes and programs are also highly flexible. While a public school student’s IEP could take months to change, AIM administrators can be nimble.

“There’s no waiting,” Herman said. “If something’s not working for three weeks, we do something differently.”

A program like AIM’s isn’t for every student with a learning difference, but the school is deeply committed to helping other schools — and families around the nation. That’s why the AIM Institute for Learning and Research was founded: to support research, and spread it to the people who need it most.

“We know that reading disabilities occur across the spectrum,” said Deborah Lynam, director of partnerships and engagement for the AIM Institute. “What works here at AIM would work well for all kids, and we want to make sure that the knowledge that exists in these walls gets out to the community.”

The school is working with local schools and is a training location for national organizations focused on reading-based learning differences, including Wilson Language Training and Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LETRS. AIM hosts academic researchers, too.

And this rich resource isn’t just available to teachers, schools, and academics. Many AIM Institute offerings are open to parents who want to learn more, through conferences, movie screenings, and speeches featuring local and national experts.

This year’s Research to Practice Symposium, which is free and open to the public, was in March, with a focus on literacy development and practices that work for high-risk populations.

But at AIM, the chief focus is always the students and helping them succeed by providing an individualized learning program and encouraging them to discover their passions.

A prepackaged approach to learning or a one-size-fits-all approach to reading instruction is not the answer, Lynam said. Students need to be treated as individuals, and teachers need to be diagnostic and prescriptive and meet students where they are.

“That happens here at AIM,” Lynam said. “While all AIM students learn foundational skills like literacy and numeracy, they also develop critical skills like problem solving, creativity, collaboration and communication.

“They learn to advocate for themselves, adapt to new environments and grow into student leaders whether they are captain of the soccer team, starring in the school play, launching a business in entrepreneurship or mentoring Philadelphia students with learning differences.”

AIM Academy is located at 1200 River Road in Conshohocken. Open houses are held monthly throughout the spring, so come learn more about AIM’s cutting-edge programs and nurturing environment. For more information, visit aimpa.org.

Photographs courtesy of AIM Academy. 

AIM Academy is a coeducational, independent school in Conshohocken dedicated to providing extraordinary educational opportunities to children in grades 1-12 with language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. Our rigorous, academic elementary, middle and high school programs, taught by experienced and creative faculty, incorporate evidence-based interventions in an arts-based learning environment that is college preparatory in scope and sequence. Our programs are designed to foster self-esteem and social responsibility both in the classroom and through our comprehensive athletics, extracurricular and summer camp programs.