ALL WITHIN REACH
“Our school was founded because the academic needs of students with learning disabilities were not being met locally,” says Sarah Hoag, Dean of Student Affairs at Calgary Academy in Alberta, Canada. “They were going to boarding schools in the US that specialised in teaching children with learning disabilities. However a group of local businessmen believed that no parent should have to send their kid away, whatever their needs.” With the help of these founders, Calgary Academy opened its doors in 1981. Today, it teaches 500 children from grades two to twelve.
“Typically, students come to us because they have additional needs,” says Hoag. “They might have difficulty with reading, writing, maths or social skills. Our children face all kinds of challenges, and learning in the traditional way had become very difficult for a lot of them.”
Calgary Academy has two educational programmes within the school. The first, the Academy, was designed to close the achievement gap, build a strong academic foundation and then equip students with the tools to become independent learners. The second, the Collegiate, aims to further develop the independent skills needed to manage change, challenge and complexity.
REACH, the acronym for the community’s core principles, sums up its priorities: respect, enthusiasm, altruism, commitment and honesty. “It influences every decision the school makes,” says Instructional Coach Kim McLean, “and is embraced by students, teachers and their families.”
This unity of purpose helps students connect. “They take risks and try new things because they trust our staff,” says McLean. “They know we have their best interests at heart. If one way of teaching doesn’t work for them, we’ll try another and another until we find what works for that particular student.” This personalised approach further develops confidence and independence.
Calgary Academy looks beyond academic success, encouraging students to participate in sports, music, drama and extracurricular activities. Individuality is celebrated. “Every classroom will display the REACH principles,” says Director of Admissions Irina Dart. “Beyond academics, we teach skills that enable students to become life-long learners.”
New staff members attend training workshops and benefit from a two-year mentoring programmer. They also receive, on average, five days’ professional development each year.
“Our staff constantly reflect on their practice relative to its impact on student learning,” says Chief Performance Officer Dana Braunberger. “We think it’s important to keep up with current research – without jumping on any educational bandwagons.”
Teachers also work with a psychologist, a career counsellor and a speech and language therapist to provide extra care. “We support each other,” says Braunberger. “We’re not afraid to collaborate and make the most of the wisdom of the group.”
This builds camaraderie and commitment: 41 staff members have been with the school for over 10 years. “We are a close group,” McLean says. “People are very proud to say they work here.” Proud, too, to push boundaries, to dare to be different – and in so doing help students reach their potential, whatever challenges they face.