With a password and secret hand signal, all who enter Tom Waitzman’s classroom gain passage to the Middle Ages.
Once inside, Max Lentz, dressed in a white cloak, no longer is a fourth grader at the AIM Academy in Whitemarsh Township, Montgomery County, but “William, duke of Normandy.” Sitting nearby are classmates “Charlemagne, king of the Franks,” and “Eric the Red.”
“Why are the Vikings leaving Scandinavia?” asked Waitzman, whose classroom incarnation is “Merlin the wise.”
“Overpopulation,” Max, 10, said. “Good word,” Waitzman told him.
Waitzman’s lesson – and its theatrical trappings – is no one-time exercise. It is part of an intricate methodology to educate students with dyslexia and other learning challenges.
AIM Academy, a private independent school for college-prep students with learning differences, uses an unusual arts-based approach that includes costumes, games, activities, and classrooms decorated as medieval castles and prehistoric caves.
“I’m not just going to give a quiz or a work sheet or have them remember a lecture,” Waitzman said. “It doesn’t work with students with language-based differences.”
What works at the 217-student academy is the philosophy “live it and learn it,” said Patricia Roberts, the executive director, CEO, and cofounder of the K-12 school.
As part of that approach, students in grades one to eight are members of “cultural clubs,” each centered on a period in history.
Fifth graders, who are in the Renaissance Club, learn geometry and math by building a model of an Italian cathedral. First graders in the Cave Club – who wear something resembling animal skins – learn science and geography via lessons involving dinosaurs and continent formation.
In the Upper School, where classes become more traditional, students can join the Start-up Club, in which they develop their own businesses.
The technique is partly designed to keep students curious and engaged at a time when frustration with their reading skills has the potential to overwhelm.
Sophomore Insaf Sydnor of University City knows that feeling well.
“You see the word the, I see go,” Sydnor, 15, said of the years before she enrolled in AIM. “You see bat, I see hit.”
The experience left her feeling lost and frustrated.
“If that is all that school is, then the child may come very quickly to not like school,” said Pat Latham, board president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. “If you can do something to make it enjoyable, that is a very important thing to do.”
Founded in 2006, AIM Academy uses the innovative approach of the Lab School of Washington, started by educator Sally L. Smith in 1967. Smith created the system while home-schooling her son, who has severe learning challenges.
Roberts and Nancy Blair, AIM’s associate director, director of admissions, and cofounder, had a similar experience as mothers.
They met when their daughters, who both had learning difficulties, were first graders at a nearby school. They immersed themselves in the latest education research.
Roberts, a technology educator, founded a West Chester University institute that promotes innovative education curriculums, community partnerships, and teacher training. Blair, then a nurse-anesthetist, switched careers to train in the Wilson Reading System, a remedial reading program.
After Roberts and Blair met Smith at an event in West Chester, the three women began talking about starting a Philadelphia-area school that would use cutting-edge, research-based methods. Soon, Roberts and Blair went to work.
The academy originally opened in Manayunk with 24 students. The school outgrew its space and moved last year to a brightly decorated, refurbished brick building across from the Miquon train station.
The school, which charges $30,000 in annual tuition but offers financial aid for up to half the bill, also has private tutoring and serves as a training center for teachers.
In June, the academy held its first graduation. Five students received diplomas. The class earned a total of $1.1 million in college scholarships, Roberts said.
For Sydnor, her time at AIM has taught her an important lesson. She has learned that, despite a rough start, children like her “can still find [their] way through life.”