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Churchill Academy: Helping students with learning disabilities to reach their full potential

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When Pat Doherty talks about the staff and students at his school, there’s a sense of pride in his voice. They are, he says, a special group of people, and Churchill Academy is a special place.

Doherty has been Head Master of Churchill Academy since it first opened its doors a little over ten years ago. The school, which is located beside Saint Peter Church on Crichton Avenue in Dartmouth, provides specialized, student-centred curriculum to children and young adults who live with learning disabilities.

“When students are first enrolled here, school has been a difficult process for them,” says Doherty. “They haven’t had a lot of successes, and they are dealing with learning and behaviour challenges. They need support that hasn’t been available to them in public school.”

Students at Churchill Academy follow the Nova Scotia Department of Education Learning Outcomes Framework which can be modified with an Individual Program Plan. Class sizes are capped at eight students, and the maximum enrollment at the school is 88.

The Department of Education gives funding-support to qualified applicants, and a supplemental funding formula based on family income is also applied by the school. This means that no one gets turned away based on cost.

Doherty says the school’s 12 teachers bring a variety of specialized expertise on top of their teaching degrees. “The staff are hand-picked and come from backgrounds in things like social work and psychology… They work with the students on so much more than academics. The time these teachers spend with the kids modelling situations and giving them coping strategies is so important to their development as people.”

Another important component of learning at Churchill Academy is physical activity. Daily Physical Education classes and frequent active field trips help students to get healthy exercise that relieves stress. The small class sizes mean outings can be easily managed, adds Doherty.

Churchill Academy offers classes for Grades 4 to 12, and students can be accepted to the school in any of those grades. Many students are able to reintegrate back into the public school system, although some do remain at Churchill from Grade 4 to high school graduation.

“We’re always assessing whether a student is ready to “leave the nest’,” Doherty says. “This is a safe spot, a place where kids don’t have to worry about sticking out because of their challenges. But the idea is for them to eventually not need to be insulated and to be able to function in the wider world.”

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