There is nothing parents won’t do for their children, and when Bill and Beth Mackasey’s son was struggling with a Learning Disability, they sought out special needs professionals Gordon Bullivant and Tom Aylesworth for support. After extensive research, the team set out to open Alberta’s first school for students with Learning Disabilities, Foothills Academy. The private school opened with 33 students in 1979 and since then has become a registered charity, built and moved into its current Parkdale location in 1990, expanded to nearly 300 students and became an LD leader in the community.
“The growth is indicative of a need that hasn’t really changed,” says Simon Williams, Co-Executive Director of Foothills Academy Society. “We still have parents like the Mackaseys coming to us in crisis because their children are struggling. They know their children are smart but they are struggling greatly in school. We figure out what specialized instruction they need to support their Learning Disability so they can succeed.”
The support reaches far beyond academics. Approximately half of Foothills’ Grades 3 to 12 students have ADHD as well as a Learning Disability, and the staff is trained to address issues like anxiety and depression that often come with the struggles of trying to succeed in a system that wasn’t designed for them. For some students, that struggle can last for years as families try to complete assessments to access resources.
“Sometimes it’s a long path to get a diagnosis, and parents often have to get private assessments, find out their child has a Learning Disability and then do the research on what to do if they can’t get the resources they need in their community school,” says Karen MacMillan, Co-Executive Director at Foothills Academy Society.
Once students have an LD assessment, they are eligible for admission to Foothills Academy. The school’s intake process is completely blind to a family’s financial situation; a family’s ability to pay tuition isn’t considered when determining admission. Once a child is accepted, they work with the family to identify if they qualify for the school’s bursary fund.
“From the beginning, our founders believed that you should be able to get this education regardless of your financial circumstances,” says MacMillan. “Over 40 per cent of our families are on some degree of bursary. That financial inclusiveness is really unique and because we’re a private school, people are often surprised by it.”
To fulfil those bursaries, Foothills Academy fundraises around $1 million per year through its annual Fall Funtasia Gala, a car raffle, participation in the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon, and the Gordon Hoffman Charity Golf Tournament, along with its Legacy Fund that invites people to donate any amount to support the school. Foothills has been blessed with incredible longtime donors, dedicated families and community members who want to support both the amazing work done at the school and the outreach programs that allow Foothills to help children in the wider community.
“We’ve only been able to do this due to people’s involvement, commitment and generosity,” says Williams.
Donors couldn’t find a more important goal than empowering children to learn and succeed in life, and through the in-classroom supports and community outreach, that’s exactly what Foothills delivers. Students come to understand their own cognitive strengths and weaknesses and are taught to advocate for themselves. The school’s success is based within three core values: building strong relationships, instilling a sense of competence to build students’ confidence, and connecting to their learning by finding a voice in their education in order to maximize their potential. While the graduation numbers for LD students in traditional settings is bleak, this self-determination model has led to an almost 100 per cent graduation rate at Foothills Academy and around 70 per cent of graduates proceed to post-secondary institutions.
The system works, and Foothills has become a valued resource for LD students across Calgary and beyond.
“We have pretty extensive wait lists because the demand is so high. We try to keep classes small – 12 to 14 in a class with a teacher and assistant – to ensure we can personalize and individualize the teaching to each student,” says Williams.
The school can accommodate only a limited number of students, so it incorporated Community Services outreach to maximize its reach. This includes everything from evening and weekend tutoring to a four-week intensive remediation program that provides LD students with strategies for success in the public system. Outreach also includes parent workshops, psycho-educational assessment, counselling and professional development via online and in-person workshops to help teachers with the unique challenges of Learning Disabilities in their classrooms. Foothills also took over running Camp Amicus in 2013, and now offers summer camps and year-round programming for children with LD and ADHD.
For 40 years, Foothills Academy has supported LD students and their families and alumni are gathering at this year’s gala to commemorate this milestone. The administration is “celebrating yesterday but envisioning tomorrow,” applauding the successes and long-lasting impact of the school while focusing on how to continue meeting the tremendous need in this challenging economic climate.
“We are all about extending our reach as much as possible and being as inclusive as possible,” says MacMillan.
By helping families across the city and teachers across the country, Foothills Academy’s reach is changing lives, one student at a time.