At a young age, Madie Ross was told she was unlikely to graduate high school. By Grade 8, she could study for two weeks and still fail a test. She could read but not process or retain the information. She couldn’t read a two-handed analogue clock.

Ross was diagnosed with ADHD as well as a non-verbal learning disability. Elementary school was a challenge; even the bullies didn’t see her. Teachers told her parents she would have to start Grade 9 in a special program — one that would not lead to university.

But Ross’ stepmother, now a retired teacher, quickly picked up on her disability while helping her study for tests and watching her work on assignments. The family decided to enroll Ross at Arrowsmith School Toronto, a private institution with a unique cognitive strengthening program that helps students struggling with reading, comprehension, logic, memory, dyslexia, and other barriers to learning.

Ross was 13 when she started attending on Saturday mornings, and then she spent a bridging year full-time before high school, where she entered in the academic stream on track for university.

Learning how to learn

“Before Arrowsmith, life was really frustrating,” Ross, 23, says today. She is completing the final year of her Honours Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Guelph. “I was there to rewire my brain.”

Arrowsmith is not a typical school. Students learn how to process information through simple but powerful exercises. Ross recalls repeating sentences in varying degrees of complexity to learn memory retention. She would draw minute and hour hands on clock faces. She completed mental math puzzles as numbers flashed on a screen.

Students spend six periods per day on cognitive exercises along with one period each of English and math. Academic courses follow Ontario curriculum guidelines and resources widely used in remedial programs. But the core program is based on the philosophy that the root, not just the symptoms, of learning disabilities can be treated by strengthening specific parts of the brain to improve capacity for more complex tasks. The goal is to reintegrate students with normal school life at the appropriate grade level.

“It’s a very unorthodox way of teaching. It’s not like a regular school at all,” Ross says. Some tasks activate the left side of the brain with words and comprehension, while other activities strengthen the right side with images and picture recognition. Students proceed through the program according to their needs, and improved self-esteem is a major outcome.

“My memory was greatly improved, my writing was legible, and my grandmother was thrilled she could read my emails,” Ross says. “I had a much more mature attitude going into high school and more confidence.”

Working together

Everyone at Arrowsmith — and her family — was committed to “making sure a learning disability doesn’t determine life’s possibilities,” Ross says. Her dad took her on the TTC to make sure she knew the route to Arrowsmith, her grandmother accompanied her to tests, and her stepmom would encourage her with her homework.
The only thing her father, John Ross, would change? He’d have enrolled his daughter at Arrowsmith even sooner.

“She was struggling in the school system. We felt that trying for change was better than settling for accommodations, despite it putting her back a year in school,” he says. “Madie’s efforts at Arrowsmith generated results.”

Ross is studying for a career in food science when she’s not busy playing goalie for a rec league in Guelph or boxing at a local gym, which also helps her cope with the stress and anxiety she encounters at university.

“The biggest lesson I learned from Arrowsmith is that no one fights the battle alone,” she says. “But you’re in control of your own life and it’s up to you what you make of it."