How Local Schools Teach Students Who Learn Differently

The primary lesson of special education teachers? Self-esteem.

Asa Brenneman knows more about his brain than most other teenagers. “I have Asperger’s and an auditory processing disability,” he says. “That means my visual perception is much stronger than my auditory perception.”

Understanding his learning difference is one of the most valuable lessons Brenneman got at Hill Top Preparatory School in Rosemont. Now, Brenneman can act as his own learning advocate.

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But getting there was a years-long battle. Steve and Elaine Brenneman watched their son struggle in three different school settings: public, cyber and a pilot program. And though Brenneman had an individualized education program that school districts compose for students with special needs, “Asa’s teachers weren’t trained to execute what was in the IEP,” his dad says. “When we talked to the school about his LD, they said Asa had discipline problems. Of course, that wasn’t it. Asa would come home in tears and say that all he wanted to do was learn.”

Brenneman tested so well that he was placed in advanced classes. “But he didn’t succeed in those because the school didn’t offer the kind of support Asa needed,” his mother says.

Finally, they found Hill Top. With specialized educational support, Brenneman not only graduated, he thrived.

Creating confident, ambitious students like Brenneman is the mission of schools like Hill Top, Woodlynde in Strafford and Delaware Valley Friends in Paoli. They’ve been established over the past 40 years as research has revealed effective strategies for kids with learning disabilities. 

Classes range from four to 10 kids so teachers can execute individualized learning plans based on psychoeducational testing, interviews with parents, IEPs (if available), and evaluations from previous teachers. Schools use many educational strategies—audio texts for students with dyslexia, kinesthetic learning tools that represent mathematical concepts for those who struggle with numbers. 

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But educational tools are secondary to the primary lesson: self-esteem. “The first step is helping students understand that they’re of worth, that they’re bright and that they can be successful learners,” says Christopher Fulco, head of school at Woodlynde. “Many kids with learning differences have been separated from mainstream students. That, and any academic failures they’ve had, usually leave them feeling quite bad about themselves.”

Says Hill Top headmaster Tom Needham, “They’ve had trouble establishing a peer group. They don’t get picked for teams. At our school, we have traditional school activities—student council, prom, a National Honor Society chapter, music lessons and sports—and everyone is eligible to get involved. No one is left out, not even for sports. We give you a uniform and say, ‘Join us.’”

Hands-on learning at Woodlynde School

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