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Private schools for children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia can provide a 'specific, well-defined mission' to help ensure that students 'gain the skills and self-confidence needed for academic success,' says Evelyn Reiss, president of the Canadian Dyslexia Society and principal of the Claremont School in Toronto.

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Meet Maeve Merrit. At just 14, she has navigated through multiple school choices in her hometown of Halifax during the past several years to find the right mix of support and strategies needed to excel despite an early diagnosis of dyslexia.

Maeve explains how she and her family worked to find school settings that would provide the tools to meet her educational goals, given her unique needs.

Starting out in a second language

Maeve started out in a French immersion class at her local public school. As the daughter of a French-speaking mother, her parents wanted to ensure that she had access to French-language schooling.

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By age 7, however, it became apparent that Maeve was struggling to keep up with her classmates in reading and writing. “We had a reading program in school,” Maeve says, “and all the other kids would be on Level 14 … while I was stuck on Level 2.”

An assessment for learning disabilities soon followed, which was "terrifying" for Maeve: "I had to talk to a stranger, and confess that I couldn't read or write, or even really make out individual letters on the page."

When the results of the testing came in, Maeve was diagnosed with dyslexia, a language-based learning disability that results in difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading. Students with dyslexia often experience challenges with other language skills such as spelling, writing and pronouncing words.

The first and second schooling switches

In response to her dyslexia needs, Maeve's first schooling switch was from French immersion classes to an English-language classroom within the same school. "It was a relief to be able to function in English in the classroom," she says.

She worked diligently to keep up with her classmates, and by the start of Grade 6 had made her second schooling switch to a local independent school, where she had a strong friend base and classes were smaller. Although she enjoyed her time at this new school, by the end of Grade 8 she was angling for another setting. “They weren’t teaching me at the pace my brain was going, and I was ready for something different,” Maeve says.

Putting private school in the mix

Enter Armbrae Academy in Halifax, a small private school. “I initially wanted to go there because I had a really good friend who attended Armbrae,” Maeve says. “It took a little bit of convincing to get my parents on board, but eventually they said yes – and I enrolled.”

The change from her last school to Armbrae was bigger than she expected, however. “I probably did more homework in the first week there than I’d done all the previous year,” Maeve says. “And it took a couple of months to realize how the school really worked. I had to do a lot of things I wasn’t used to – like wearing a uniform every day.”

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Although Armbrae didn't offer classes specific to students with language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia, Maeve says other features of the school "really helped" her learn to effectively manage her dyslexia. "I had so much one-on-one help," she says.

Although she was “totally overwhelmed” at the start of the school year, she was able to catch up to the faster pace – and even excel. The small classes allowed students to focus on their schoolwork, and “there was always someone available to support me when I needed it. I had classes in study skills, in note-taking – everything that let me develop strategies to improve my school performance.”

It turns out that for Maeve, smaller, quieter classes enhanced her ability to manage distractions; a key element in successfully addressing her learning disability.

At the end of the year, Maeve says she “really learned how to manage my dyslexia.” As a result, she felt ready to make yet another schooling switch, to the local public high school. “This will be the biggest change yet,” she says, “because there are 10 times as many students there as at my last school.”

Key ingredients for educational achievements

For a student with learning difficulties, private schools can provide a broader menu of educational methods – not just in dress code, but in approaches to delivering education that may meet a child’s specific needs. Even a short stint in the right setting can propel a child’s achievements in unexpected ways.

Evelyn Reiss, president of the Canadian Dyslexia Society and principal of the Claremont School in Toronto, a private school for students with dyslexia, echoes Maeve’s story with her own experience in working with dyslexic students. “One of the most profound changes that an effective remedial program can achieve is breaking the cycle of despair and avoidance that a child struggling at school may experience,” she says.

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“All children begin school wanting to learn, but students with dyslexia struggle to keep up with their peers when learning to read, spell or recall math facts. Schoolwork for these students is often a chore and a source of anxiety, and with each passing year they slip further behind. Catching up becomes an overwhelming and time-consuming task, often involving hours of extra tutoring after school. Thus, it is crucial to strengthen these students’ skills and help them feel positive about learning as soon as possible.”

Maeve’s story shows that achieving success may require parents to dive deeper into the factors of their child’s educational needs, and to seek out educational settings that can help “create a recipe” for educational wins. Ms. Reiss notes that private schools for children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia can provide a “specific, well-defined mission” to help ensure that students “gain the skills and self-confidence needed for academic success.”

For Maeve, a stint of private schooling was a missing ingredient that had her emerge ready to take on the next challenge.

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