Facing "issues at home" and certain she wouldn't graduate, Bryna needed somewhere she could "deal with everything, plus the academic side, because going to university is extremely important to me."
The solution turned out to be Rocklyn Academy, a private therapeutic school on a 75-acre farm near Meaford, Ontario, that—to her delight—features horseback riding as an activity. This fall, accepted at several universities, Bryna entered the one of her choice determined to achieve her goal of becoming a writer.
Checking out the few private schools that concentrate on special needs might be one of the most important moves parents can make. The tuition isn't cheap, but you're paying for individualized, structured programs to rescue students who might be floundering and help them reach their potential.
"I came to look at Rocklyn Academy and it has been, in all sorts of ways, therapeutic as well as academically positive," says Bryna. "I most definitely have changed inside. . .with a much better understanding of myself and what I want. My relationship with others changed in four months. I have grown up - seriously, seriously matured."
Founded several years ago by psychotherapist Dale Stohn and her teacher husband, Bob Shaw, the academy accepts from 20 to 30 Canadian and American high-school girls who are defiant about not attending or profiting from traditional schools. The single most common denominator among incoming students is low self-esteem, says Shaw, director of studies at Rocklyn Academy. "Some act in, some act out, some have depression or oppositional attitudes."
Many girls have been labeled with attention deficits. A few have appeared at court on first offenses. About half are adopted, perhaps facing issues of identity. School marks, previously good or high, are falling. Families feel the situation is out of control.
"We're not equipped to deal with every adolescent," Shaw cautions. Rocklyn Academy does not take students with psychiatric disorders. Students must be clean of drugs and sober. "We are not a treatment centre."
Tuition comes to $35,000 for the first year and $32,000 for subsequent years, with another $4,000 to $5,000 for uniforms and other expenses. With 25 full and part-time staff members,including psychologists and a social worker, the school offers both weekly one-on-one and group therapy and a program that includes anger management. Shaw describes "a structured but nurturing environment," where consequences are based on love, not fear. "There isn't yelling or screaming."
The girls face clear expectations and boundaries. By achieving levels of responsibilities, they earn such privileges as phone calls home, outings and pieces of jewelry. Truancy isn't a problem, says Shaw. "We're here on a farm in the middle of nowhere."
As for the riding, Shaw says it helps girls get through fear - "some have never seen a horse" - achieve riding proficiency, and connect with a large animal dependent on them for comfort and care. Bryna says with satisfaction that the riders have to brush their horses, saddle them up and, after a ride, take everything off, clean their hooves and clean the stalls.
Ben Cator, 13, faces a different challenge: When he's trying to learn, he doesn't like "a lot of noise and a lot of kids" in the classroom. At his previous school - he had been to four or five - "I got in trouble a lot," he says. So on visitors' day at Star Academy in Mississauga, Ontario, when he saw the small classes and found everyone knew each other, "I was really excited to come." With small classes it's simply "easier to concentrate," Ben explains.
Belinda Barnardo, who founded Star Academy for children who "fall between the cracks" of the public system, says that in four years Ben has moved from working below his grade to excelling.
By Grade 8, he was working on Grade 9 math and had been accepted at the Cawthra School for the Arts.
"I have changed a lot since I came here," Ben says. "I used to be a lot more hyper. Of course, some is maturing by age, but some is having more understanding that being hyper didn't do anything. Lots of times they'll sit down and talk to you about it."
However, he says with a grin, when he's with friends out of school skateboarding, BMX biking on a track with jumps or freestyle skiing, he can be as hyper as he wants.
The peace and quiet in classrooms at Star Academy is deliberate, says Bernardo.
Geoffrey Box, who came to the school two years ago in Grade 5, also notes approvingly that Star Academy is "a lot quieter" than his previous school, where he found the work hard. "I like this one more," he says, adding: "My Mom and Dad are really impressed."
A quiet atmosphere, behaviour expectations, emphasis on organizational skills and learning how to pay attention are particularly significant for the 55 percent of students who come with a learning disability or other label. Some children have not been diagnosed, but clearly suffer from attention deficit disorder.
Increasingly, incoming students report being victims of bullying. And in one case that Bernardo says "disgusted" her, a young girl had been mistakenly diagnosed as needing placement in a life-skills classroom, meaning she was seen as having "severe intellectual difficulties."
A report on the girl said she couldn't talk or communicate, so Bernardo hesitated even to meet the child because her needs would have exceeded the school's mandate. Instead, the girl actually had a learning disability that was treatable and now she is at her grade level with reading support. Another student, Marissa Taggart, says she "used to get picked on a lot more" at her previous school. "It was really annoying."
At Star Academy, "It's the best!" She says she has lots of friends in all classes, "my marks have gone up. We get a lot more attention here."
Bernardo says that because the school is small, teachers can keep an eye on how students treat each other. "There is no swearing (allowed), no putdowns, no disrespect to each other. We treat each other well and we treat ourselves well. A lot come here with shattered self-esteem."
Children are not allowed to use a dislike for school or a disability at school as a crutch, she says. "I have had a parent cry and say it's the first time the child wanted to go to school." Please note that elsewhere on this site, we have more information about and a list of special needs schools.
Another highly structured program can be found at Landmark East School, an international coed boarding school for students aged 10 to 19 who are diagnosed with learning disabilities and/or attention deficit disorders.
Established in 1979, it sits on five acres in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, overlooking the historic Acadian dykelands. Landmark students use recreational facilities at nearby Acadia University.
Headmaster Tim Moore says the school's mission is to develop sound academic and social skills to enable students to cope successfully in future endeavours. Landmark East School is not a therapeutic centre for emotional, psychological, social or behavioural problems. The structure is designed to encourage self-discipline, Moore says.
Each day, for example, students vacuum the floor in their rooms, clean the bathroom, tidy drawers, make their beds. Inspections occur before breakfast and before lights out.
Students who prove themselves responsible can earn occasional instead of daily room checks or leave earlier for breakfast. For negative behavior, "a consequence would be loss of an earned privilege." Students who are disrespectful in class must leave and make up the lost time at lunchtime or recess.
Landmark is divided into a middle-school remedial session and a high school. In middle school, students receive intensive training to upgrade their processing, memory, language and oral expression skills to the level of their intellectual ability.
Roseanne Taylor, who has a learning disability with an auditory component, started at Landmark in Grade 7 and now is in Grade 8. She says that at her previous school, where there were 20 to 30 students in a class, if you needed help the teacher couldn't always get to you.
Like other students, Roseanne benefits from one-on-one tutorials and says her speech has improved "very much."
From marks in the 50s and 60s, she now racks up 70s - and even a 95. Roseanne credits "the way they teach and the classes with six people or less. I used to work on my homework for hours and hours," she says. "Here I work for 11/2 hours and I get it all done."
The student-teacher ratio at the Landmark East School middle school is 6:1. In higher grades, there might be even fewer students per teacher. To reinforce concepts through the year, the school is non-semestered.
John Golden, 19 and in Grade 12, recalls that he arrived at Landmark East School with serious problems reading and understanding what he read. He found the work difficult at first, but in one year of remediation progressed from a Grade 4 to a Grade 9 level.
Moore says that in high school, the students work on academic credits while "learning research strategies, how to get assignments completed, thoughts on paper."
These are all critical skills for post-secondary education.
A proficient cook, John never believed he would get a job in the field, but now, he says confidently, "I plan to go to P.E.I. to take up culinary arts. I was always told you need a brain to do any of these jobs. Now I have good self-esteem. (Here) they build you up."
At Landmark East School, John says, "instead of saying, It's too hard work and I wouldn't be able to do it, a lot of students are looking at their dreams and going for it."
John calls his time there "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Landmark East School has an enrolment of 75 students from Canada, the United States and other countries. Each student spends 11/2 hours in study hall in the afternoon or evening, alternating with physical education, which includes track and field, archery, wrestling, bike club and swimming.
"Every student participates in phys. ed.," says Moore, "not to make star athletes but for physical fitness and to give them the chance to try some things and find they can do them."
At Landmark East School, tuition for a seven-day international boarder in the middle school is $35,000, for a Canadian $32,000, for a five-day boarder $30,000 and for a day student $22,000. For high-school students, the same categories cost $26,500, $23,500, $21,500 and $13,500.
When the resource program that helped dyslexic kids like Colin Mann at his home school in Ontario was cut, his parents looked for an alternative. They found The Gow School, a boarding school for special needs students in upstate New York, which offers Grades 7 through 12. Founded in 1926, Gow takes boys of average or above-average ability with a cognitive diagnosis of dyslexia or similar learning disability. About a quarter also have problems paying attention.
The Gow School uses a phonetic language approach, focusing on oral reading, reading comprehension, spelling, vocabulary and writing. "Last year I couldn't read, hardly," says Colin. "Now I'm reading Tolkien's The Hobbit."
The boys do full academic days six days a week but enjoy long breaks to go home about every five weeks. Tuition, including boarding, is $33,600 US.
Colin, 14, says he finds the work "really easy". "I actually get a lot of free time. I don't get much homework."
The school is successful because "we're quite selective in whom we take," maintains Robert Garcia, director of admissions. "Usually the majority, and last year 100 percent, of the graduates are off to four-year college programs," he says with satisfaction.
Eric Weinberg of Montreal, now in his senior year, started at The Gow School in Grade 9. Although he anticipates he's "always still going to have trouble doing the things that go with dyslexia," Eric expects to be well prepared for university "back home" in Canada.
"The amount of homework we get in junior and senior years, they really pile it on - four or five-page papers due almost every day." He has little spare time but enjoys soccer and rowing in summer and squash in winter.
Eric is a fan of boarding schools. "What's great is that you make friends from all over. I have friends from Hong Kong and Australia and last year one from Norway. Probably anywhere you go in the world, you'll have a friend."