Education plays a pivotal role in shaping the future of a state’s economy, culture, and society. To that end, efforts aimed at providing quality education to a diverse student population are necessary in shaping a generation of well-rounded, informed, and skilled individuals. Because students with learning and social differences aren’t always successful in large public schools, educators are thinking outside the box. It’s that creative approach and the passion of a group of Michigan parents, teachers, and community members that led to the creation of Aim High School in 2011.
Aim High School, a private school located in Farmington Hills, Michigan, is making strong waves with its commitment to excellence and innovation. Dedicated to the academic and social success of 6th-12th grade students with a variety of language-based learning differences, anxiety disorders, and attention deficits, Aim High believes that strong teacher-student relationships and small classes are key to developing students’ abilities, talents, and interests. The school designs a personalized curriculum based on research-driven assessments and engages students in learning experiences that combine strong academics and social and life skills. Whether students are college or work-bound, Aim High School aims to produce graduates with integrity and character ready to lead independent and rewarding lives.
Excellence through Individualized Instruction
Aim High focuses on providing excellent academics through individualized instruction and a personalized curriculum. Its small school environment, with a 1:8 teacher/student ratio, allows both middle and high school teachers to give students personal attention and provide hands-on learning that brings together classroom concepts and real-world applications.
Emphasizing abilities rather than disabilities by building on students’ strengths, Aim High’s philosophy is to meet the students where they are and take them to the next level according to how they learn. Strong teacher-student relationships, small classes, assistive technologies, and accommodations make this possible.
Aim High’s certified teachers are experts in their content area and excel at combining traditional teaching methods with hands-on learning experiences. With small class sizes, teachers are able to work with each student as an individual and customize the delivery and pace of content, ensuring Aim High School students are equipped with the skills and confidence to move forward. Teachers also focus on establishing relationships with students built on trust, which allows them to support students emotionally and help them acquire effective communication skills.
Evidence-Based Educational Model
Aim High School has an evidence-based educational model. During the first several years of the program, a University of Michigan School of Education research group conducted pre- and post-testing with Aim High students. The results of that study showed significant gains in social language skills each year for all of its students.
While the study is no longer ongoing, the school recognizes that the assessments helped its teachers understand the range of learning styles in their classrooms and generate a school-wide set of goals and strategies for the improvement of processing skills.
With that, it has incorporated a communications and life skills class into the curriculum for students who need more direct instruction in social language skills. Students in this class have shown appreciable gains in executive function—especially inhibition control and cognitive flexibility.
Encouraging Creativity, Critical Thinking & Problem-Solving
Aim High School provides many opportunities for students to hone their creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Aim High’s life skills program enables students to learn and test critical thinking and problem-solving using real-world applications like negotiating to buy goods at a pawn shop, changing the oil in a car, stopping an overflowing plumbing fixture, as well as interviewing for a job, tipping at a restaurant, etc.
In cooking class, students manage a budget, plan menus, shop at the grocery store, and cook meals together. At the Hawks Nest, the school store, students run a commissary where they manage the inventory, merchandising, marketing, customer service, and the cash register.
In addition to these dedicated programs, teachers incorporate real-world applications in their classes daily to provide opportunities for students to apply their knowledge. It’s essential at Aim High School that students don’t just learn for a test–but learn for life.
Fostering Better Bonds
Because of its small size, Aim High School fosters close relationships between teachers and students. In addition to the school’s core classes, teachers teach electives and participate in after-school clubs and social events. They also eat lunch with students and go outside afterward for a round of kickball or frisbee. In an advisory role, teachers meet with students and help create goals for them, as well.
Even if math class is not a student’s favorite, bonds can be made with that teacher at another point throughout the day. The student may also have that teacher for an art class, for their after-school club, or as an advisor. These multi-faceted relationships are key to promoting a dynamic and engaging learning environment at Aim High and building those close bonds.
Whole Student Development
Many Aim High students did not enjoy positive experiences and relationships in their former schools. Often, when students enroll at Aim High School, the focus is on building students’ self-esteem and confidence in the classroom as well as in their interactions with teachers and peers. Each student is viewed as an individual, and the school’s expectations for progress in all areas, including social and emotional development, are individualized.
Since many incoming students have also experienced feeling unsafe or have even been victims of bullying in previous educational settings, providing a safe and inclusive environment is essential at Aim High School. In fact, the school’s mandate is to provide a safe environment where all students can be themselves and feel respected and learn to extend the same to everyone in their lives as they grow into adulthood. Due to the school’s small class sizes and positive relationships with students, teachers are aware of most of the interactions happening between students and can address issues before they become problems. These interactions become opportunities for teaching positive communication, empathy, and respect.
Academic growth follows when students feel they are valued, respected, and safe. By focusing on a whole student approach, working with parents and sometimes students’ therapists and support teams, Aim High helps students grow emotionally and develop positive and effective relationships with teachers, parents, peers–and most especially with themselves.
Ensuring Parental and Community Involvement
Frequent and effective communication with parents is essential to Aim High School students’ success. The school has an open-door policy between parents and teachers. It also sends weekly progress reports and detailed report cards and engages in frequent calls and meetings with parents to support students academically, socially, and emotionally.
In addition, many of Aim High’s students’ therapists, psychologists, or other care providers are engaged in supporting the students’ school life. The school also draws on the expertise of parents and other professionals to work with students on career planning or the development of skills. Historically, the students have had presentations from digital artists, nurses, financial planners, musicians, trade and vocational school representatives, as well as university and community college representatives.
Aim High School also feels it is essential to get its students out of the school and involved in the community, so field trips are planned at least once a month. This past year, it created an arrangement with a parent who operates a local coffee house. Students were able to use the shop’s stage and space for the school’s Create Community events. Each event drew over 100 guests, including parents, students, and community members. The school’s rock band – the Aim High Flyers – performed, its drama students displayed their skills and monologues, and creative students presented their art and read short stories or poems they composed. It was a wonderful way to be regularly out in the community and connect with one another.
The school band also had the honor of being asked to perform at a special occasion, the Autism Alliance Gala, where top community members and leaders (including the Governor and Lieutenant Governor) were in attendance.
Engaging with families and the community is an essential part of the Aim High School student experience.
Enriching Learning Experiences
To enrich the students’ overall educational experiences, the school offers a variety of extracurricular activities based on student interests. Involvement in clubs such as yearbook, student council, D &D, improv, and more provides opportunities for Aim High students to develop friendships and improve their social skills.
Aim High School has Esports and robotics teams as well. The Esports team was started in 2022 and competes against other schools in the region. The robotics team works throughout the year and then competes in statewide competitions in January and February.
Students also benefit from teacher-facilitated homework groups. This after-school program provides designated time for students to complete homework assignments with teacher assistance before heading home for the day. Upon completing their work, students are able to engage with classmates–grow friendships, and enrich their social skills.
Additionally, Aim High students can enjoy formal dances throughout the year and monthly “Hawk Hangouts” – a night of pizza, games, and fun for all students and teachers. Aim High School strives to provide a full school experience in a small school setting.
Overcoming Learning Challenges
Many Aim High students struggle with executive functioning challenges or learning disabilities such as dysgraphia and dyscalculia. The school utilizes assistive technology to help students concentrate on academics and overcome their handwriting, organization, and visual challenges. Using programs such as MathType, OneNote, Google Read&Write, and Join.Me allows students to demonstrate their intellectual strength rather than their physical struggles. Work is instantly clear, legible, and organized –immediate feedback helps students work independently with growing confidence.
Aim High School also has a certified reading specialist on staff to support students and teachers and offers accommodations to students based on their learning styles. Both of these learning supports are an important part of each student’s educational development plan. Over time, the students are trained to assess their own needs and advocate for themselves as they face learning challenges.
Goals and Aspirations
Aim High School doesn’t chase awards. Its rewards are provided through student outcomes. Each year, it has produced a class of graduates who may not have otherwise been able to achieve their high school diploma. Its college-bound students have been accepted by both in-state and out-of-state top universities and colleges, including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Calvin College, Rochester Institute of Technology (New York), St. John’s College (Maryland), and the University of Toledo (Ohio), to name just a few. Other students have pursued trades and vocations or joined the workforce after graduating. Seeing its students become independent, productive, and positive members of communities is Aim High’s ultimate goal and reward.
The school hopes to continue providing a supportive environment for students with learning and social differences to discover their true potential. So many of its students would not make it, let alone reach their true potential if they didn’t have a school like Aim High School.
Other goals include making Aim High School possible for all students who need it despite their families’ financial status and expanding the opportunities for learning, growth, and community engagement for all students.