Each student has a unique way of learning, and individual differences make the world a rich and interesting place. Yet, it’s often these learning differences that frustrate students, parents, and teachers — especially in traditional situations where resources are stretched thin. An individualized approach to education isn’t possible in all situations, which means kids who are otherwise highly capable can be left unsupported.
At Aim High School, a tuition-based private school in Farmington Hills for sixth- to 12th-grade kids with learning and social differences, the most important goal is building strong trust between students and teachers. “Relationships are everything,” says Mike Earls, head of school at Aim High School. “We know that it’s difficult to focus on learning when students don’t trust the individuals who are asking them to work hard.”
For the most part, the student population at Aim High School is made up of students who didn’t find success in the traditional school model. “Many of our students struggled academically and socially in a typical school setting leading to frustration, diminished self-esteem, and sometimes behavior issues. They may have been pulled out of their classes and put in resource rooms and learned from an early age they were different from their peers and couldn’t compete. That really affected their ability to develop positive relationships with teachers,” Earls explains.
When students arrive at Aim High School, Earls and his faculty work hard to earn their trust, and the environment at Aim High enables the teachers to work with each student individually and holistically. “The focus is always on improving the quality of the students’ lives and overall well-being, not just their essays or test scores,” Earls says.
Here are some other ways Aim High School fosters strong relationships with students:
Build on connections that happen naturally
Instead of assigning a student to a guidance counselor based on where their name falls in the alphabet or their grade level, Earls observes which faculty member a student clicks with during their daily lives. “We assign each teacher five to seven students based on personal connections that develop naturally,” he explains. “The teacher serves in an advisory role and listens when the student wants to share challenges with peers or class content or any stresses in their lives.” All teachers participate in afterschool homework clubs and student social activities to further cement bonds outside the classroom.
In their previous schools, Aim High students were typically one of 25 or 30 in their classrooms. At Aim High, they are one of eight students in their classes. That small class size means plenty of targeted instruction, time to ask questions, or even try a different direction if one concept isn’t working. “Kids don’t all learn at the same pace,” Earls says. “A student may struggle with writing or reading comprehension but is talented in math. We work on skillsets based on their abilities, not their age.”
Approach learning holistically
When Aim High teachers prioritize improving the quality of life for their students, they not only guide them academically, but they help them regulate their executive functioning, practice their organizational skills and learn to advocate for themselves. “There is a level of PTSD that some of our kids are experiencing because they have been bullied or removed from school or experienced embarrassing behavior situations. This affects the self-worth of a young person, so it’s really important for us to make sure our kids feel like they are on a level playing field with everyone in their class,” Earls explains.
“While there are ups and downs, most student outcomes are successful,” says Earls. “It’s a powerful moment when a student who joined Aim High School as a sixth grader reaches graduation and goes on to higher education or a job.”
“We really celebrate when someone gets accepted to Wayne State or Michigan State or wherever they want to go. Every middle school and high school student and their families attend graduation each year, and we celebrate each kid individually for how far they have come and how they have achieved their life goals,” Earls says. “When they have gone through all the hard work of skill-building and developing emotional trust, graduation is great because everyone can see the fruits of their labor and how far they have come. It’s a really big, all-school celebration.”