Build It and They Will Come
A new high school in Chicago is challenging tradition to create a specialized environment for students with ADHD, dyslexia, or other learning disabilities.
Most parents who have a child with ADHD or a learning disability either request an IEP or 504 Plan, or look into switching schools. In the case of Jeff Aeder and Jennifer Levine, of Chicago, they did neither. They started a college prep high school for kids with learning disabilities. It is called Wolcott School, Chicago’s first high school for students with learning differences. It opened its doors to 35 freshmen and sophomores in fall 2013. Wolcott levels the playing field for all students. Nobody feels different or segregated.
Aeder and Levine had a strong incentive to start the school. Their daughter Molly, 14, diagnosed with dyslexia, had to attend a boarding school six hours away, in Michigan, to meet her educational needs. The parents’ dream became reality three years later.
“The school is built on a desire to connect with the individual,” says Levine. “The teachers are not teaching to one ‘standard’ student. There’s no presumed way of doing things.”
Created by the architectural firm Wheeler Kearns, Wolcott was designed with an eye toward teaching kids who were not accommodated in mainstream schools. At Wolcott, each student has his own laptop, equipped with special features to meet his own needs, such as text-to-speech software to manage reading challenges.
Classrooms seat 10 students each and are equipped with an interactive whiteboard. Each classroom connects to a “huddle room,” where instructors meet with students in small groups. Because the huddle rooms are everywhere, there is no shame at being pulled out of the classroom, as there is in mainstream schools.
There are also peer-to-peer learning areas and spaces for solitude, where a student can have quiet time alone. With learning spaces that look like those of a very modern college, the design does not suggest a “special” school. There are no color-coded floors, no over-sized signage, and no digital clocks.
Wolcott offers gym, clubs, and sports, such as basketball, volleyball, and cross-country. The school is committed to a culturally and economically diverse student body. Half of its students receive financial aid.
Sally Dahlgren’s daughter, who was diagnosed with dyslexia, had a tough time in middle school. She had to give up sports and ballet to concentrate on academics.
Dahlgren chose Wolcott when her daughter said, before she had even seen the campus, “Mom, this sounds like the school for me.” Dahlgren was relieved to find a place that celebrates her daughter’s strengths and addresses her weaknesses. “She was willing to give up the big high school experience, with football games and a prom, just so she could be herself.”