When Foothills Academy was established in 1979, it proved to be a groundbreaking school for students with learning disabilities (LD) who had previously been overlooked by mainstream education. Four decades on, it continues to set positive precedents, and currently serves nearly 300 students from grades three to 12. “Foothills was a game-changer when it was set up,” says Simon Williams, Executive Co-Director of the school alongside Dr Karen MacMillan. “It makes you realise how students should be served by education. It’s about using their strengths and awesome potential.”

The founders of Foothills Academy, Gordon Bullivant and Tom Aylesworth, had a reputation for their teaching work with special-needs students when they were approached by a family in Calgary, Canada seeking an encouraging academic setting for their son. Foothills was established through their collective efforts and research work. The school’s current co-directors serve on various committees as advocates for students with learning disabilities and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

“Our students have often been struggling for years without a diagnosis, or the necessary resources to be successful,” says Dr MacMillan. “When they arrive at Foothills Academy, these students often have a low sense of self-efficacy around school work, and do not see themselves as capable. Over time, with strong relationships and a strengths-based approach, we are able to connect their efforts with the experience of academic success.”


Reaching out

In addition to the school itself, Foothills’ Community Services departments offer a broad range of programmes and outreach services for the LD/ADHD community. These include psychological assessment, counselling, individual tutoring, summer camps, recreational courses, parent workshops and professional development. “The family ethos is a core part of our approach,” says Williams. “It’s a very close, positive environment for the students and their families. We provide intensive individual teaching where needed, and try to ensure enrichment opportunities through phys-ed programmes, sports teams, electives, clubs and drama productions.

“We have a graduation rate of nearly 100 per cent, whereas many of our students might have struggled to complete high school in the ‘regular’ system. We cover every socio-economic demographic and many of our students go on to university; one is currently applying for Harvard. We’re confident that all of our students can head out into the world as young adults, and succeed.”