For Mollie Aeder to meet her educational needs, she had to attend a boarding school six hours away in Michigan, her parents said. The couple wanted a high school wholly dedicated to teaching students with learning disabilities like their 14-year-old's dyslexia. But no such facility existed in the Chicago metropolitan area.
"She didn't want to go; we didn't want her to go. ... It was terrible," said her father, Jeff Aeder.
It seemed to be a problem without a solution. Then Aeder and his wife, Jennifer Levine, had what he called a "3 a.m. epiphany" — when they both sat up in bed, vowing to build their own institution.
Three years and $10 million later, Wolcott School will officially open its doors Wednesday, welcoming an inaugural class of 35 freshmen and sophomores, the first college-prep high school in Chicago exclusively for students with learning disabilities.
Some will travel to the school in Ukrainian Village from as far as Lake Forest, Aurora and Homewood. One family is moving from New Mexico. All are undeterred by the daily commute and $37,500 tuition.
Blueprints for new schools can languish in committees and zoning boards for years. But the speed with which the Wolcott School moved from dream to reality also illuminates how people with a personal interest, a powerful network, talent and means can get things done. Donations from some of Chicago's most prominent philanthropists helped fast-track the school.
Nationwide, an estimated 4 to 6 percent of high school students — or nearly 2.4 million — are diagnosed with learning disabilities that can interfere with reading, writing, math or other subjects, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
Under federal law, public schools are required to provide the necessary help such as extra tutoring or untimed tests. But services can vary tremendously from one district to the next. Or students may get a teacher who doesn't understand learning differences, dismissing a child as lazy or having a poor attitude. Often kids end up frustrated, hating school and dropping out, despite average or above-average intelligence.
In a school that caters exclusively to this population, the stigma is removed and instantly replaced by an inclusiveness that levels the playing field, experts say.
That's the kind of atmosphere Levine and Aeder wanted for Mollie. In elementary school they found the right fit at Hyde Park Day School, which ends at eighth grade. For high school they ended up at Leelanau School in Glen Arbor, Mich. Mollie liked the instruction but didn't like being separated from her family in the Lakeview neighborhood.
"Clearly, this happened for a reason," said Aeder, a self-confessed lousy student who attended three colleges before he graduated. "We had a responsibility not just to our kids, but to other kids as well."
So the couple sprang into action, floating the idea to the area's top clinicians who specialize in evaluating and supporting kids who labor over numbers and words.
"To a person, everyone said, 'We desperately need this here and how soon can you open it?'" Levine said.
Many of those experts offered to serve on Wolcott's advisory council, making up a veritable "who's who" in addressing learning disabilities in Chicago. Then they purchased the building — the former Union League Boys Club at 524 N. Wolcott Ave.
While Aeder focused on raising money, Levine traveled the country visiting some of the nation's finest learning disabilities institutions. She got excited about technology and small class size and new methods of acquiring knowledge. Ultimately, though, it was the culture that left the most lasting impression, and Wolcott aims to replicate that, Levine said.
"The entire school is built on a desire to connect with the individual. ... The teachers are not teaching to one standard student. ... There's no presumed way of doing things."
Levine and Aeder are not educators — she's a lawyer, he's in real estate — and they knew that without a strong leader at the helm, they lacked credibility. So in 2011 they reached out to Miriam Pike, chair of the special education department at Deerfield High School, who had retired after 30 years and was contemplating her next move.
"These were the rock stars of learning disabilities," Pike said. "How could I say no?"
At Wolcott, the team started building its dream school from the ground up. Each student will have his or her own laptop, equipped with special features to meet the individual's needs, such as text-to-speech software to help those with reading difficulties pull out major themes. Classrooms are designed with a "huddle room" big enough for both large and small instruction, where kids who are easily distracted can finish an assignment instead of sitting in the hall.
In turn, Pike recruited the most skilled teachers she could find, hoping that they, too, would be intrigued by the heady prospect of creating something new for teens whose brains are wired differently. Together they envisioned a laboratory to discover best practices that would not just be used in Chicago but exported around the country.