Students with special needs struggle to succeed

Dec. 20, 2006, midnight | By Audrey Kubetin | 13 years, 7 months ago

Learning-disabled students often don't receive the help they need

If she wanted her diploma, she knew she had to get out of Blair.

For former student Ashley Valoris, every school year was the same: She began each quarter with As in her classes, but as the weeks passed and the work piled up, her grades dropped to Cs and Ds. She was bright and creative, but her severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) meant she was unable to organize her schoolwork.

Halfway through ninth grade, a doctor at Children's Hospital advised Valoris to find a teacher who could help her keep track of her assignments. What she needed, he said, was five minutes of one-on-one help before and after school.

But 10 minutes a day was too much to ask. According to Valoris, the administration told her that Blair wasn't able to offer that type of help. Valoris and her mother spent the next two years asking the administration to arrange a solution that would accommodate her needs, but nothing changed. After earning mostly Ds during the first semester of her junior year, Valoris realized she couldn't stay at Blair if she wanted to graduate. In early 2004, she transferred to a local private school.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2002 requires schools to offer an equal educational opportunity to all students, including those with disabilities and special needs. Valoris is one of several students, however, who have had to fight to get the extra help they needed. While some eventually received the support they had requested, others, like Valoris, believed they had no choice but to transfer. With Blair's hands tied by county policy, these students felt that the current system couldn't meet their needs. Whether they remained at Blair or decided to leave, they all agree that they were let down and left behind.

Working the system

According to Assistant Principal Patricia Hurley, Blair makes reasonable special-needs accommodations for its students in accordance with NCLB, MCPS policy and the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires states to provide a free appropriate education to all students with disabilities. "I think we do a really good job of meeting the needs of the students," she says, although she adds that it is important for parents and teachers, as well as Blazers themselves, to advocate for getting students the help they need. "We can't solve problems that we don't know about."

Valoris first spoke up about her needs after her grades began to decline during ninth grade. Starting in her sophomore year, she and her mother met with representatives of the administration to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which specifically addresses the special educational needs of a particular student.

According to Hurley, providing a student with one-on-one organizational help is unreasonable, as Blair has no employee specifically hired to serve as an organizational coach. "Whether we agree on whether that would help or not was irrelevant; the school system doesn't have someone to do that," she explains.

Despite Blair's adherence to county law, Brian, a former Blazer who asked that his real name not be used, felt that his needs couldn't be met under MCPS policy. Brian has Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by the repetition of sudden, involuntary movements or vocalizations, known as tics. Although he doesn't consider Tourette Syndrome a learning disability, he says it affected his schoolwork. "It would disrupt other students and make it hard to concentrate and get stuff done," he says.

As Brian's stress increased, his tics grew worse. His parents let him take a few sick days to collect himself, but his mood didn't improve. One sick day led to another, until he was staying home for weeks at a time. Some teachers supported him during his absences, Brian remembers, by getting him assignments he missed. Others were less sympathetic, refusing to let him make up work. "It was as if I was just supposed to completely pretend I hadn't missed class," he explains.

"One of the masses"

About a week before the end of third quarter, after Brian had been absent for about three weeks, the administration told him he couldn't miss any more school. He wasn't ready to return full-time, so he asked if he could take an extended absence and "do a Home Hospital-type thing," in which he would receive his schoolwork at home. The administration agreed to such an arrangement, but during the weeks it would take to receive MCPS approval, Brian would be expected to attend class.

He couldn't bear the thought of going back. He believes the school could have been more lenient regarding make-up work or allowed him to remain home while MCPS considered his case. Instead, Brian says he was bound to follow the rules of the school system's bureaucracy. "I had to go through the whole system, and there was no leeway for me," he explains. "I felt like I was being herded like cattle. I was one of the masses."

In a school of Blair's size, 2005 alumnus Vijay Das understands how his needs were overlooked. Shortly before starting school in fall 2001, Das was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Constantly distracted from his work, he disrupted class, picked fights and spent most of the year suspended as a result. "Sometimes, I felt like they owed me so much more [help]," he says, "but you got to do something to earn that help."

Like Das, Valoris struggled without the help she felt she needed. Although she took a special education course at Blair, she says the class had its own workload, which prevented her from using the period to organize her work. She attended academic support when she was confused by a particular concept, but Valoris says her main problem wasn't with the material assigned. "I didn't need help with the homework," she says. "I needed help getting it back to my teachers."

When Valoris saw a second psychologist, he recommended that she transfer to Kennedy, where he thought the resource department could better accommodate her needs. In the middle of 11th grade, she left Blair and spent the rest of the year at a local private school, where she had received a one-semester scholarship. After the money ran out, Valoris enrolled at Kennedy in fall 2004.

New beginnings

At Kennedy, a resource teacher from the special education department met with Valoris three times daily to remind her about her assignments and help her organize her schoolwork. With the help of the resource department, Valoris saw her GPA rise from the 2.0 it had been at Blair to over a 3.0 – high enough for the Honor Roll.

To help manage his ADHD, Das began high school with a 504 plan, which defines instructional guidelines that allow a student with special needs to remain in a general-education environment. Even so, he fell behind. After failing ninth grade, he was asked to leave Blair and continue his education elsewhere. Das admits that his behavior was "childish," but he believes he would have been more successful had the administration made a greater effort to keep him in school. "I feel like they didn't want to spend time to help the kids, to motivate them," he says.

After spending a year abroad, Das registered for the 2003-2004 school year and arrived the first day of school expecting to attend class. Making his way through the halls, he says he ran into his administrator, who told him he didn't belong in the building and sent him home. His mother sent a letter to MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast, asking that Brian be allowed to return to school. A month later, Das was allowed to reenroll at Blair, although he doesn't know what precipitated the decision to readmit him.

He seized on his second chance, he says, by meeting with his parents, his counselor and several administrators to develop an IEP and set goals for himself. By taking night classes and summer school, Das earned all of the credits he needed to graduate. In June 2005, just two years after he enrolled in Blair for the second time, Das graduated with a GPA around 2.5. "I felt like I proved them all wrong, and I proved them even more wrong by graduating on time," he says.

After the third quarter of his sophomore year, Brian transferred to a small private school, where he is now a junior. In a school with less than 70 students, Brian believes he gets a level of personal attention he couldn't get in public school. When he has a bad day, his teachers let him sit out. If his tics begin during class, he can step outside the room until they pass – a freedom he felt he never had at Blair.

To Brian, the administration seemed unwilling to make an exception that could accommodate his needs, and this strict adherence to MCPS policy pushed him away from the school. Because Blair is legally bound to follow public school policy, Brian thinks the school is often unable to meet the specific needs of its students. "I felt like they were trying within the limitations they had," he says. "It wasn't that they were treating me unfairly. It was that the whole school system is unfair."

Audrey Kubetin. Audrey lives off of tea, tofu and Tool. The end. More »

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