Stories from Students & Parents

The Aim High Experience
Stories from Students and Parents

Part II
"The Perfect Fit" by the Crossman Family
"Self-Confident" by The Larson Family
"Challenged and Happy" by The McNicol Family

Part I

“No Other Place We Want to Be” by James Barbitano & Drew Hopper
"Focused and Able to Learn" by Rebecca Blome
 "I Got My Daughter Back" by Maria Celano-Blome

“Calm Inside and Out” by Kyle Brisson

“Ready for College” by Kyle’s Parents – Marc & Cheryl Brisson
"Believing in Myself" by Julia Tvardek
"Not Just Surviving, but Thriving" by Julia's mom - Katie English
"I Will Go Far" by Ross Dunlap
“Aim High Gave Us Back Our Family” by Ross’s Parents – Gwen & Dale Dunlap

The Aim High Experience - Part II

Part II contains additional (and more recent) interviews and stories from some of Aim High's students and families. There are many more stories in the Aim High experience—but one common theme: Our youth are precious and deserve every opportunity to realize their own unique potential. Aim High!


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“Where do the ‘Toms’ of the world go?” wondered Jill and Drew Crossman when their son didn’t fit a mainstream public school classroom or a special education classroom. The latter wasn’t advanced enough to challenge Tom, but the former was too loud and chaotic. “He was non-compliant compliant,” says Drew. “He wouldn’t cause issues, but he wouldn’t be challenged.” The staff didn’t ask much of Tom in class and allowed him to eat lunch in the teacher’s lunch room to avoid engaging with other kids. By sixth grade, Tom was falling behind academically and calling home every day, saying he didn’t feel good.

The Crossmans tried a home-based private school, which helped Tom recover from the stress of his public school experience. But he needed more advanced science and math instruction and more kids his own age. That’s when they found Aim High.

From the first visit, the Crossmans were assured of a plan to help Tom catch up to his grade level in math and science and to work around difficulties like taking notes and writing by hand. “Mr. Earls believed in our son,” says Jill.

“They came up with simple solutions,” says Drew, “like typing during class, that allowed him to remain independent.”

Within days, Tom started speaking up in class. He stopped being “sick” on school days. He even asked to go to the Halloween dance, though he hardly knew any classmates yet. 

When he was encouraged to try the drama class and join the band, he discovered activities that really excited him. He took to wearing a fedora, told everyone to call him “Thomas,” and realized he could make other kids laugh. Now in his second year and caught up academically, Thomas eats lunch with a couple of other boys at least a few times a month, enjoying friendship on his own terms.

Jill says, “I bet 90% of the parents at Aim High have had our experience of crying ourselves to sleep, not knowing what to do next. Now I sit back and think, ‘Wow! He’s becoming a young man and his own person.



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“I want her to be strong and confident in who she is,” says Serena Larson of her daughter, Bella. “At Aim High, she is learning how to navigate relationships and have meaningful exchanges. The teachers make this happen by how much they care. They really listen—to Bella and to us.”

Bella agrees. “Before Aim High, I didn’t know how to talk to people. I didn’t know what to say and what not to say.” Homeschooling helped Bella learn despite dyslexia and developmental delays, but when she came together with other homeschooled kids, she was shy. “I felt isolated, and then I’d get mad and take it out on my family.”

Everything was different when she arrived at Aim High in ninth grade. A couple of girls greeted her, and they became instant friends. “I felt I could just be me. And I talked in class. The teachers wanted to hear from me.”

Serena saw that her daughter’s reaction to Aim High was love at first sight. “It was like a miracle. I was so grateful. The teachers know their subjects, but they love the kids right where they are, which enables the kids to grow academically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.”         

Now a quintessential social butterfly, Bella is grateful for the social guidance the teachers give her. “I can talk to Mr. Earls about anything,” including how to interact with boys and how to understand what friends expect.

Bella is also thriving academically, with one-on-one instruction in more challenging subjects and encouragement to study the way she learns best—by talking things through. She loves the creativity of her teachers, noting the games and unusual assignments that keep learning fun. “They drive all the students to their best potential,” says Bella. “I wouldn’t succeed anywhere else.”

As a founder of the school band, Bella not only sings and plays but is one of the band’s leaders. She introduces the songs when they perform. Says her father, Greg Larson, “When we saw Bella on stage, talking with such confidence to a room full of people, we had tears in our eyes.”

Bella recognizes her own improved confidence. “The whole reason for Aim is to transition into life. That’s what the teachers are helping me to do. I don’t feel scared to graduate in two years.”


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“Michael never had an issue with learning,” says his mother, Brooke McNicol. “It was just the whole environment.” Diagnosed with Asperger’s at age seven, Michael wasn’t happy at public school or private school. “Every day was a challenge,” Brooke remembers. “I was on pins and needles all day, expecting to hear from him or the school.” Brooke immersed herself in school activities, advocating for Michael and seeking all possible help.

“But he wasn’t happy,” says Michael’s father, Jim McNicol. “We were struggling to find a way to make him happy.”

Michael was overwhelmed by too many kids; he sensed that teachers couldn’t handle the chaos and that no one in school had time for him. He had a classroom aide, but other kids bullied him about that. “I hated to get out of bed in the morning,” Michael remembers. “I was making Bs and Cs, and the teachers would say, ‘Michael’s doing great!’ I finally begged my parents to change schools.”

When Michael started seventh grade at Aim High, he found teachers who respected him, coursework to interest and challenge him, and an overall atmosphere that was much less stressful. By the middle of his second year, he’d been promoted to ninth grade. “He’s proactive about doing his homework,” says Jim. “We don’t even have to ask about it.”

Michael is grateful for the quiet lunch room, the ability to use his own laptop in class, and his enthusiastic teachers. “We study topics in depth,” he says, referencing a study of discrimination in world history, a five-student class in world literature, and a “flip” classroom for math (in which students watch the teacher’s recorded lectures after school and do homework together during class). “I pretty much like all of my classes,” says Michael, “and I’m making better grades, which says a lot about how much more confident I am.” The McNicols are now talking about college.

Michael’s teachers see that he is capable of doing more, and they respond with advanced opportunities, including robotics, which Michael has enjoyed in an elective class and as a school club. He piloted Aim High’s robot in a recent regional robotics competition. They didn’t win but scored “better than we expected for our first time,” says Michael.

“We’re also impressed with the way issues between students are handled here,” says Jim. “Things that would’ve simmered for weeks in another school are dealt with in the moment. They get to the root of the problem. And Michael has learned how to articulate what he wants. If he has a problem, he handles it.”

Brooke sees that her son is “moving beyond Asperger’s” in the classroom and with fellow students. “When I see him talking with friends, it makes my heart want to explode.”

“Our whole house is lighter now,” says Jim. “We’ve found our answer.”

Michael agrees. “Before I came here, I didn’t have friends I liked to talk to. Now you can’t get me to shut up. I can actually say I’m happy going to school now.”


The Aim High Experience - Part I

The Aim High Experience is a compilation of stories from a few of our students and parents telling about their journey to Aim High. These stories were written by Stephanie Kadel Taras whose services were donated to Aim High by Dick and Norma Sarns. Please share The Aim High Experience with anyone you meet who may benefit from or support our school.

“No Other Place We Want to Be”
James Barbitano & Drew HopperAim High   DrewHopper

  Aim High    JamesBarbatano
Aim High students James and Drew met at the Judson Center in Ann Arbor when they were in middle school. The boys and their parents became friends, and James and Drew decided to go to Aim High together in 9th grade. Here is a summary of an interview they participated in together at the start of 10th grade.

James: I felt like a fish out of water in elementary school. The kids were nasty and the teachers didn’t seem to care.

Drew: When I was at public schools, I could not stand it. When I asked a question, they wouldn’t listen. Kids were always bullying me. I felt like a lone ranger. There seemed to be no way around it. I didn’t have enough time to finish my work. I kept thinking, “Is there any way to make things better for myself and my family?”

James: When we visited Aim High, I saw the classrooms had tables instead of desks. It felt almost like being in a conference room.

Drew: It felt like the best thing ever. The teachers let the kids go at their own pace. The kids were nice.

James: The teachers and the principal are extremely nice. They treat the students with care and respect. If I’m not getting it, I can say, “Please repeat that. I’m not getting it.” And the teachers collect strange stuff, like Mr. Landrum has these old literature books.

Drew: Yeah, the oldest book is from 1364! . . . I’ve gotten more social since going to Aim High. The teachers have been helping me with that. For instance, I have been taking a class called “Communications” with Mr. Beemsterboer. He’s a funny teacher. He’s incredible. We’re creating a school store. James and I are running it together. It’s called the Hawk’s Nest.

James: I thought of drawing the logo for it, along the lines of anime. I drew it with pen and paper. Then Elijah (another Aim High student who is a gifted artist), helped me put on the final touches. It’s like “Sonic the Hedgehog” with a hawk’s face. Everybody around the school likes what we drew. 

Drew: Our consumer math teachers—Mr. Beemsterboer and also Ms. Urquhart—do a phenomenal job teaching us. They go over the top to help us. They write things on the white board to help us remember, and they show us videos, and we use a learning website called Khan Academy. It is very good. All the teachers are great. 

James: My least favorite class is science, but I make references in that class to science experiments I saw in movies and museums, and even though science isn’t really my thing, it’s kind of fun… After school, we get together in the students’ lounge and hang out, do leftover homework, sometimes share a laugh. 

Drew: James and I like to make films together. If we have a school project that involves filming, we’ll be right on it. 

James: We began with special effects films, like blowing stuff up. Then we did movie reviews and video game reviews. 

Drew: Now we’re creating phony movie trailers by our company DJP Trailers—that’s Drew and James Production Trailers. We’ve done four trailers and one promo. Right now we’re working on a spoof of Wolverine. Do you want to tell about it, James? 

James: It’s called The Pencil Pusher, and instead of claws like the Wolverine, he would have pencils coming out of his knuckles. 

Drew: It’s very cool. . . Aim High is a very cool school. When I’m learning there, I think, “There’s no other place I want to be right now.” Academically, everybody has a chance, but it goes way beyond an incredible story of a place where people learn academics and get socialized. From there, you have a chance to live an incredible life. As our slogan says, “Go to Aim High School and soar toward success!”

“Focused and Able to Learn”Aim High   Rebecca Blome

Rebecca Blome 

My main problem in public school was concentration. In seventh and eighth grade, I wanted to socialize more than listen to the teacher. In big classes, I couldn’t focus, even though I took medicine for ADHD. I would get distracted easily, and I had a hard time remembering what I had learned. My grades started to go down, and I thought I must be stupid.  

My mom and I visited Aim High in November of my freshman year. At first, I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay with my friends. But I decided it was best for my education to try it.  

I had to start over with all my ninth grade classes, but the teachers helped me understand and go at my own pace. They observe the students and see where we’re having difficulties. They repeat things for me and snap me out of my zone. They make learning fun. Now, I don’t get distracted so easily. That problem seemed to go down a lot on its own. I even went off all medication after I’d been at Aim High for a month.  

Before my freshman year was over, I had almost caught up on all my coursework and made all A’s except for one B.  

In the future, I want to go into psychology to help people. They don’t have a psychology teacher at Aim High, but Mr. Earls got me into an online psychology class that I do every day in 7th period. I really like it.  

Aim High is just a great school. Everyone gets along really well. I feel myself maturing.

"I Got My Daughter Back”
Rebecca’s Mom – Maria Celano-Blome

“Rebecca did fine in elementary school with a single teacher,” says her mom, Maria. “The trouble started when she got to middle school.” With multiple teachers and assignments, Rebecca—who had been diagnosed in third grade with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)—found she lacked organizational skills. Once in middle school, she missed assignments, couldn’t follow directions, couldn’t plan ahead. Homework was a constant battle. The worse she did, the more anxious she became, and the more anxious she became, the worse she did. Maria felt the teachers blamed Rebecca and wouldn’t help her.

As her grades plummeted, she started acting out. “She’s very extroverted,” says Maria, “so her social life was all important to her. She was a cheerleader. She was popular. When she got in trouble for acting out, her friends thought it was funny. She was cool for being ‘bad.’ I knew she was headed in the wrong direction.” When Rebecca tested in the 90th percentile on intelligence tests but brought home all F’s on her report card, and with her acting out getting more serious, Maria had to act. “I knew if I didn’t get her out of the public school, she wouldn’t graduate from high school.” 

Rebecca was in tears the morning Maria dropped her at Aim High for a one-day visit. “She thought I was taking her to a special ed school. But when I picked her up at the end of the day, she wanted to go again as soon as possible.” 

At Aim High, Rebecca’s behavior problems stopped immediately, but it took a couple of months for the Aim High teachers to convince Rebecca that she wasn’t stupid. When she began to believe it herself, Rebecca wasted no time catching up. “She made up an entire year of algebra and language arts in five months,” says Maria. Rebecca caught up in social studies and earth science in four weeks of the summer school session, bringing her 9th grade GPA up from a 1.0 to a 3.5.

She did all this without medication, which Rebecca and her mother felt she didn’t need anymore. 

Maria finds all the teachers are mentors to Rebecca, giving her six adults to talk to and confide in. “The teachers get to know the students well enough to ask why and make adjustments,” says Maria. She likes that none are special education teachers but are dedicated to their jobs and to the kids. 

Rebecca has surprised her mom with how much she has matured since going to Aim High. “She hangs out with the kinds of kids she might not have talked to at her old school. Almost instantaneously, she had learned to like and appreciate and respect the kids she goes to school with now. She’s matured a lot in her view of people and her openness to diversity. I can’t tell you how proud I am of her. I got my daughter back.” 

While Maria used to be sure her daughter wouldn’t finish high school, Rebecca now understands she is preparing for college. Says Maria, “I’m so glad Rebecca figured out she isn’t stupid at age 14 instead of at age 20, like I did.” Maria admits she takes the money out of Rebecca’s college fund to pay for Aim High, but there would have been no point in a college fund without Aim High. 

Maria and Rebecca drive a long way from their home in West Bloomfield to Aim High each morning. Maria says it’s worth every mile and every penny. She enjoys the mother-daughter time in the car. This year there is another student who lives by their home and Rebecca often drives to school with that student which also helps. Also, since Rebecca does all her homework at school, there is no homework stress after they get home. “There’s peace in our household now,” says Maria. “Rebecca feels better about herself, so she gets along better with me and with her brother. I like our family life right now, the positive aura in our home. Our family became functional again. I can’t say enough about how the school has helped turn us around.”


“Calm Inside and Out”
Kyle Brisson

Update: Kyle graduated from Aim High School in June and attends the University of Michigan He wants to major in Physics and lives on campus. Kyle and his parents reached out the the U of M Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (which assists students with disabilities including Asperger's Syndrome) and Kyle has access to accommodations like extended test time, special testing locations, and help with note taking if he desires. He also has a student mentor (an upperclassman). Kyle's father, Marc, said, "Cheryl (Kyle's mother) and I were very apprehensive about Kyle moving out and starting college at such a big school. He really seems to be in his element and we could not be happier. He is riding the bus between campus and the dorm. He is keeping up with work assignments and is getting along well with his new roommate. We are so proud of our son! We cannot thank the staff at Aim High School for the tremendous role they played in making this a reality."

In elementary school and middle school, the kids all acted the same. They were loud, they didn’t pay attention, they talked around me. I was more quiet, more of a thinker. I didn’t get involved with them. I was thinking all the time about ways to get them to shut up.

School was chaotic. The teachers seemed to talk to the wall. No one was listening. And I couldn’t focus. I never seemed to get the right attention. I was good at just about everything—science, physics, math—but not writing.

At Aim High, I’m in a different environment. The teachers are friendly and the kids are less of a pain, especially since there are less of them. The teachers can afford to give more time to each of us. They give me work and let me do it, and I can come to them with questions. Mr. Landrum, the English teacher, pounds writing ideas into my head, and I’ve learned how to write.

I’m also able to be more social. I started talking to other kids more, and it’s easier to connect with them. There’s more interaction and there’s meaning to our conversations.

I used to look calm on the outside, but I was angry on the inside. Since I’ve been going to Aim High, I’m just calm.


“Ready for College”

Kyle’s Parents – Marc & Cheryl Brisson

Diagnosed with Asperger’s and mild autism at age three, Kyle struggled in overcrowded classrooms. He wanted order and quiet. He challenged his teachers about the relevance of activities and tried to keep the other students on task.

Kyle excelled in science, but his interests—spiders, snakes, surgery—turned off his classmates. When he talked on an adult level, he was further ostracized. Clearly ahead of his peers in some subjects, but falling behind with reading and writing, Kyle needed more independence in some classes and extra help in others. His old schools provided neither. When he was frustrated, he shut down.

As Kyle was completing middle school, a job opportunity for his mom, Cheryl, meant a possible move from Maryland to Michigan, but only if the Brissons could find an educational option that worked better for Kyle. Then they found Aim High. “We picked up and left all of our friends and family behind,” says Kyle’s dad, Marc, “believing this was the right thing to do for Kyle.”

Cheryl recognizes that if Kyle had gone to a different high school, she would have spent much of her time at the school, advocating for him. Instead, knowing Kyle is learning and growing at Aim High, Cheryl can focus on her demanding corporate job in human resources. She is also happy to see Kyle getting along better with his younger brother.

“Aim High has been good for all of us,” says Marc.

The Brissons can’t say enough good things about the Aim High teachers. “They got to know Kyle so they could customize their teaching to his needs,” Marc explains. “They know Kyle as well as anybody.”

Cheryl adds, “They make the effort to do that. You could say it’s because of the small environment, but I really think it’s the teachers’ commitment to what the school’s about. They tap into each kid’s abilities and focus on those, but they help with some of the weaknesses as well.”

After three years at Aim High, Kyle was writing on a college level. “I never would have believed he could do that,” his mom says. “Now I’m not worried that he can pass English in college.” She gives thanks to English teacher Mr. Landrum whom she describes as Kyle’s counselor and teacher. “They really made an impression on each other.” Kyle also became an avid reader and now “plows through” big books, according to his mom.

Kyle has also made friends for the first time. “Before Aim High, he never remembered kids’ names,” says Cheryl. “Now he knows everyone. He wasn’t comfortable before, but they have made him comfortable.”

“It is his school,” says Marc.

Before Aim High, the Brissons would not have contemplated letting Kyle go away to a four-year university. Now, Kyle is taking Advanced Placement classes for college credit, studying calculus online, and going on college visits. When the Brissons toured the MIT campus, Kyle’s parents enjoyed seeing their son’s quick wit and charm with the new people he met; he was clearly a young man who could do well there. “He has really come out of his shell,” says Cheryl. “There’s no negativity or frustration anymore.”


“Believing in Myself”
Julia Tvardek

I’ve never really believed in myself.

At my old school, people were mean to me. They kicked me, imitated me, threw water on me, called me names. In 8th grade, I was in the social worker’s office every day. I don’t remember being in class a lot. I only remember being in the social worker’s office. I started cutting myself because I felt so bad.

Everything changed when I came to Aim High. I loved it right away. People have the same disabilities as me, so they won’t tease about it. I do not get teased anymore. If someone is mean to me, the teacher handles it right away. I have friends at Aim High, and they are really nice.

The teachers teach differently than in the public school. They teach how we learn. I use a computer for math, and that’s my favorite. I’m good at it.

I still say negative things about myself sometimes, but the teachers tell me, “Julia, you shouldn’t compare yourself to others.” The teachers say that they believe in me. Maybe I’m starting to believe it, too.


Not Just Surviving, but Thriving”
Julia’s Mom – Katie English

 “Before Aim High, I was certain Julia was going to live with me forever,” says Julia’s mom, Katie English. “I couldn’t see her doing anything to make a living. Now I can imagine her moving out, going to school, getting a job.”

When Julia attended a public middle school, every morning was a struggle. “I had to remind her of every step to get ready,” says Katie. “I think it was the stress of going to school, because I don’t have to do that anymore. Now, I just wake her up. She looks forward to going to school.”

Julia always found learning difficult and struggled to control her emotions. In middle school, she had trouble paying attention, but she was constantly looking for attention. It was clear she wasn’t as emotionally mature as her peers. A frequent target of bullying on the bus and in the classroom, Julia believed what the other kids told her: she was stupid. “She had no self-esteem,” says Katie. “I was sitting in an IEP meeting at her middle school thinking, ‘These  people are nuts if they think she’s ready for high school. There has got to be a better option.’” 

Julia may not have been ready for a crowded public high school, but Aim High is a perfect fit. Recognizing Julia’s difficulties with reading and writing, the teachers encourage her to write on a computer, and they give her exams orally. If she needs a little extra time to finish a math test, she can stay put until it’s done and show up late to world history down the hall. With such adaptations, Julia has discovered she can learn the material presented in class. And as she learns, she becomes more confident in herself. 

With help from teachers, Julia has also come to recognize her own impulsive behavior and the need to monitor it. When she got in trouble at home for going on Facebook after her mom told her not to, Julia wanted her computer temporarily confiscated because she realized she was unable to monitor herself. “That shows real growth for her,” says Katie. 

At the same time, Julia is now spared the teasing and taunting of her peers. At Julia’s old school, students’ mean behavior would fester in Julia’s mind all day. But at Aim High, conflicts between students are addressed right away. “There’s no chance for a comment to take hold,” says Katie. 

Before Aim High, when Katie would put her daughter on the school bus, she would breathe a sigh of relief to have a few hours to regroup before Julia was home again and needing all her attention. “I don’t have that feeling anymore,” says Katie. “I pick her up from school, she’s in a good mood, she’s had a good day, and we have a good evening together.” 

Katie smiles in wonder that Julia now has dreams for her future. “She says, ‘Maybe I’ll do computers. Maybe I’ll go to cosmetology school.’ It’s all about self-confidence and feeling good about herself.” An independent life for Julia now feels possible. In fact, Julia is on her way to getting her driver’s license. Thanks to driving instruction arranged by the school and the ability to take the “written” test orally, Julia now has her learner’s permit. 

“I don’t know where she’d be without this school,” says Katie. “For many years, every night after Julia was asleep, I would say a prayer of thanks that we survived another day. Now, we’re not just surviving. We’re thriving.”



Ross“I Will Go Far”
Ross Dunlap

I go to one of the smallest high schools ever—one hallway’s worth. It’s so small that I hardly need to think when I’m changing classes. That’s a big difference from where I went to middle school.

You know the idea of kindness is a virtue? I didn’t see a lot of that in school before Aim High. But now I have plenty of friends. And if there’s an issue with me and a classmate, the teachers get it to stop.

The homework load in middle school was insane. We have homework at Aim High, too, but we don’t have to do it at home, so it doesn’t interfere with my parents’ or my schedule.

The teachers make things interesting, so I’m making better grades. The last project I worked on last year was a timeline of English history. I was surprised at what was invented and when and what things overlapped. Chemistry is my biggest challenge. Gym is my favorite class. I like working out on the treadmill and practicing soccer.

Going into my senior year, my focus is to do this right. Because college is next. I realize the further I go in school, the better I can answer “What next?” Aim High has taught me that I’m an intelligent person that will go very far in life. I didn’t think that before.


“Aim High Gave Us Back Our Family”
Ross’s Parents – Gwen & Dale Dunlap

Gwen Dunlap understood right away that her son Ross wasn’t like other children. She had studied early childhood development and worked in an employee daycare before Ross was born. “Twenty three-year-olds slept at my command,” she jokes. But Ross didn’t sleep through the night until he was 4½ years old. He wouldn’t eat regularly, he screamed when left alone, and as he began to talk, he couldn’t get the feel of give-and-take in a conversation.

Ross was found to have symptoms that are on the autism spectrum, but his characteristics weren’t exactly like what is found with classic autism or classic Asperger’s. His diagnosis fell into the category of PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified). “Ross is unique,” says his father, Dale. “Like every kid.”

Ross had difficulty with writing, conversation, and attention. He was anxious in large groups. At the same time, he was a good reader with a good understanding of the stories he read. It was obvious he was an intelligent boy. And he was always willing to work hard, to try what his teachers and therapists recommended.

Gwen quit her job to put all her attention to Ross’s upbringing and education. She took him to every enrichment activity that had been shown to be helpful to kids with autism—play groups, music therapy, occupational therapy, and more. When it was time for school, the Dunlaps moved to a different Ann Arbor neighborhood where Ross could attend a small public elementary school. He did fairly well there, while continuing therapy after school.

Knowing Ross wouldn’t thrive in a large, public middle school, the Dunlaps found a smaller charter school for him to attend, but those were tough years. The other students, who had no history with Ross, targeted him for bullying. If they were bored, they knew they could pick on Ross and get a rise out of him. When he fought back, he was the one who got in trouble. “In his mind, he was fighting for his life every day,” says Dale. “He was always operating in panic mode.”

Ross’s anxiety made it hard to pay attention in class, so his parents were reteaching the lessons at home every evening. In school and at home, Ross had trouble planning and organizing his work and managing his time. Homework became a daily battle.

“The middle school homework was tearing our family apart,” Dale remembers. Exhausted from the anxiety he felt at school, Ross needed a break when he got home. But before too much time went by, he had to get going on his homework. “He’d push back,” says Dale. “He’d take two hours to do one page of math problems. I thought, ‘He’s being lazy.’ I’d work with him until I was frustrated, and then Gwen would come into the room, and I’d be mad at her. The dynamic was horrible for all of us. It was hard to remember that Ross didn’t think the same way I did.”

Ross’s math teacher in middle school didn’t seem to grasp that either. “Ross called her ‘the evil queen of numbers,’” says Gwen with a wry smile. Ross’s grades were slipping.

When Ross was ready for high school, Gwen and Dale knew they needed another option. They recognized that the public schools simply don’t have the resources to provide the personalized learning experience Ross required. Four years in a public high school would mean four years of constant advocacy and negotiating with the system for special services. Every meeting about Ross would start with a list of things he couldn’t do. “I knew I’d have to ‘go negative’ to fight the schools,” says Gwen. “I didn’t want to face that.”

Instead, she and Dale put their energy toward the positive work of Aim High School. Dale helped locate and rehab the school’s building in Whitmore Lake, and Gwen serves on the school’s board. They have helped to found a school that is perfect for Ross but also for a lot of other students who have their own distinct challenges. “Our commitment became much bigger than an education for Ross,” says Gwen.

She and Dale are proud of the school but even more proud of their son’s progress. Ross is making A’s and B’s in challenging academic classes. Previously wary of competitive sports, he now plays soccer at school. “He’s more independent,” says Dale. “He’s more self-confident.”

Gwen agrees: “He’s matured a lot. His initial negativity toward things has gone away. He’s more verbal and more social. He’s talking to kids and taking social chances. He feels safe to try out his humor.”

Gwen recounts a school field trip to a pawn shop where the students were encouraged to negotiate prices. Ross found some video games he wanted to buy, and not only did he ask to use another student’s smart phone to look up prices on line but then he took his evidence to the pawn shop dealer to propose a lower price. He succeeded in getting the price reduced. “That was a real risk for him,” says Gwen. “It was huge. And he did it himself.”

The Dunlaps aren’t looking too far ahead, but they can imagine Ross going to community college for a couple of years and then maybe going away to school to complete his bachelor’s degree. This is more than they’d ever dreamed for Ross.

In the meantime, Aim High’s homework support, provided by the teachers after school and included with tuition, saves Ross and his parents from that nightly battle. Says Gwen, “It gave us back our family.”