The Issue: Greater Expectations

Schools are doing better than ever at educating children with learning differences. But services to transition them into adult life are few.




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It wasn’t easy, but Cathy Cowin (left) and her school district worked out a compromise while implementing Alyssa’s individual education plan. photograph by Christian Kaye



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Jackie Erb recalls the day her son Billy, then 6, told her he wanted a chess set. Jackie hesitated. Billy, diagnosed with a generalized learning disability and Attention Deficit Disorder, persisted.

“I thought chess would be too complex for him, and I didn’t want to see him becoming frustrated and lose self-confidence,” Jackie says. “He was already giving us indications he knew he was somehow different from his classmates.”

But Billy won out, and when Jackie showed him how the pieces moved, she was surprised.

“He picked the game up right away, and pretty soon he was beating the rest of the family,” she says.

Fast forward to 2006 and Billy’s fifth-grade class at the University of Delaware’s College School. The class is composed of students with a variety of learning differences, including dyslexia, ADD, and other social and behavioral disorders. Billy became part of the College School’s chess team for The Delaware State Elementary School Chess Championship, which involved 75 students from 20 schools. Billy’s team was the only entry featuring children with learning differences.

And it won overall first place honors. Two of the team’s members won individual first-place awards.

The success of these “impaired” learners illustrates a dilemma in public education: How do you maximize the potential for all children, ranging from those with profound physical and mental disabilities to those with high-functioning social and behavioral disorders?

The search for an answer can exhaust the patience, resources and hope of parents, teachers, administrators, researchers—even attorneys—involved in expanding opportunities and outcomes for the 17,000 Delaware children identified with special educational needs.

The effort to provide opportunity and fulfillment for children with special needs has three main components: intervention, inclusion and transition. And these three components are driven by three others: information, advocacy and awareness.

The picture of how well Delaware meets the educational needs of disabled students changes as you move from the particular to the general. Shifting from individual parents to special education teachers to school administrators and the state’s Department of Education shows a change in attitude from combative to warily optimistic to, finally, hopeful of changing strategies to meet newly developing realities.

Gregory Lavelle is the father of a severely disabled 6-year-old son, Matthew, a member of the Brandywine Special Needs PTA and a state representative from the 11th district.

“We need to spread more information about what’s available for parents,” Lavelle says, “but we have to change the combativeness that characterizes the relationship between parents and schools into one that is more collaborative.”

Cathy Cowin’s daughter Alyssa has been diagnosed with cognitive disabilities and expressive language disorder. Cowin recalls “intimidating tactics” by her school district when it came to implementing Alyssa’s individual education plan. “Basically, the district tried to dictate to us the services it was going to provide,” she says.

The Cowins and the district eventually worked out a compromise, but Cowin maintains it happened only because of an exception built into Alyssa’s IEP, a kind of binding contract between schools and parents of children with special needs. Developing an IEP, however, can be draining.

John and Valerie Werner are adoptive parents of 19-year-old Andy, who was born with profound cognitive disabilities, cerebral palsy and life-threatening seizures. The Werners say the process of getting proper resources is exhausting.

“Many parents say, ‘I give up,’ and you can’t really blame them,” says John. “But you can’t let it exhaust you. One principal told Val and I that we were successful in getting the support we believed was necessary for Andy because we were the squeaky wheel.”

Yet, John says, many parents don’t attend meetings to develop education plans for their children. Part of that problem may be an educational deficiency on the part of the parents. They simply can’t sift through all the information that could help them, identify the resources that may be available or develop an approach for articulating the need for those resources. Organizations such as the Parent Information Center were created to address this information shortfall.

Parent Information Centers, mandated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), help parents become better advocates. “We also work with the state’s Department of Education to help ensure that individual school districts are adhering to federal and state law,” says Marie-Anne Aghazadian, executive director for the Parent Information Center of Delaware.

Aghazadian says the strength of her organization comes from being part of a national network that can provide training for parents. “The Department of Education is committed to working with families to obtain the resources they require for their children,” she says. “The difficulties arise with the individual school districts that retain great power and autonomy. This leads to a patchwork of progress that needs better coordination.”

In Delaware, says John Werner, “It boils down to the individual teacher. When we had a good one, Andy’s progress was noticeable.” Says Valerie, “When you don’t have a good teacher, not only is there no progress, there’s regression, and you can wind up losing all of what that good teacher had provided.”

Effective dissemination of information can lead to greater advocacy, which in turn heightens awareness. Nowhere is heightened awareness more critical than in the issue of intervention. Early intervention is critical to improving outcomes and increasing opportunity for children. In this regard, Delaware misses the mark in some areas, but hits it in others.

“If our screenings suggest the possibility of learning disabilities in a child under three years old, that child is referred to the state-supported Child Development Watch,” says Esther Lauser, a child and family specialist with the University of Delaware’s Center For Disabilities Studies. After age 3, the child is referred to ChildFind, a federally funded program, part of every public school district, to provide educational services for children until age 21.

But when a child starts formal public education, the picture gets murky fast. Persuading school districts to provide the in-school services and supports identified by ChildFind can seem to parents like pulling teeth.

Lavelle and other parents saw failing test scores as the key barometer in how well their school district was meeting its federal special education standards.

“The lack of improvement in test scores for special needs children in Brandywine underscores both why we founded the Special Needs PTA and the extent to which we still believe current intervention methods are failing,” says Pat Heffernan, co-president of the Brandywine Special Needs PTA, the first of its kind in Delaware. “The current approach is still one of ‘wait to fail.’ The timing of intervention must occur before failure, not afterward.”

It was the timing of intervention that drove the Erbs to seek help for Billy outside the public education system.

“There was too much incrementalism,” Jackie says. “It was evaluation after evaluation, with valuable time intervening between each. We just felt vital windows of opportunity for Billy were being missed by all that time spent in evaluation.”

Martha L. Toomey, director for the Exceptional Children and Early Childhood Education Work Group of the Department of Education, says the state has moved to address the early intervention issue. Working with the University of Delaware’s Center for Disabilities Studies, the state’s new Response to Intervention program utilizes more intensive monitoring and tracking to anticipate discrepancies in achieving academic benchmarks rather than waiting for those discrepancies to solidify into failure.

“We will intervene on a more immediate basis now, based on regular screenings by teachers to assure appropriate benchmarks are being achieved,” Toomey says.

She says the waiting-for-failure method created “educational tragedies.” The Werners’ efforts to get the support for Andy at one point resulted in the school district dragging them to a due process hearing—not the other way around, as is usually the case.

Notwithstanding, Toomey says that, statewide, only 10 to 12 cases wind up in formal hearings. “That’s out of 17,000 children identified with special needs,” she notes.

PIC’s Aghazadian believes Delaware is heading in the right direction by moving special needs children out of self-contained environments and into the mainstream classroom. Yet inclusion for the sake of inclusion is not enough.

“Inclusion with appropriate supports is what’s needed to be effective,” says Aghazadian.

Those would be the exact words special education teacher Tara Kingery would use. A nine-year veteran of teaching in a variety of special education settings, Kingery, now teaching third grade in the Christina School District, has seen the positive outcomes that result from a program of inclusion, such as the Team Approach to Mastery program.

“TAM has produced huge positive results in the four years I’ve been involved with it,” Kingery says.

In a TAM supported classroom, class size is expanded up to 25 students, with anywhere from five to 11 of those students having special needs. The expanded overall class size reflects that a TAM classroom is led by two full-time teachers, one of whom is certified in special education.

“By the third grade, children with special needs have already begun to sense that they are somehow different,” Kingery says. “But they become less aware of those differences when blended in regular classrooms. From the mainstream perspective, children are less aware of children having special needs, and thus the blending can be almost transparent.”

Kingery has documented improved test scores among children with special needs who are part of a TAM program.

“It’s a much calmer classroom in which to learn,” she says. “There’s less social disruption than you would typically find in a self-contained special education classroom, so there is more attention that can be paid to academics.”

Brandywine SNPTA co-president Alex Rittberg experienced a virtual controlled experiment on the value of inclusion in the case of his twin 9-year-olds, Holly and Josh, both of whom are physically impaired and learning disabled as a result of complications related to premature birth.

“Entering first grade, Holly was placed in an inclusive TAM environment and Josh was placed in a self-contained special needs class,” Rittberg says. “Holly achieved noticeable progress while Josh lagged behind. We finally persuaded the school to include Josh in the TAM class halfway through second grade, and he soon caught up and actually scored better than Holly on their DSTPs (Delaware Student Testing Program) for that year.”

Inclusion with supports is a federal mandate under IDEA. The DOE is responsible for helping school districts implement any number of inclusion programs, such as TAM.

“Districts are increasingly serving more children with special needs in a regular classroom setting,” Toomey says, “and we are emphasizing more training in order to reach even more children with those needs.”

Toomey’s department has also identified state practices that hinder inclusionary programs, thus works to correct them. One such practice concerned how districts were mandated to demonstrate a specified minimum number of hours spent with special needs children under the so-called “unit count” financial allocation regulation.

“Districts currently have to document a minimum of 12½ hours of special education teaching per week to qualify for additional funding,” Toomey says. Since inclusionary programs make it difficult to quantify hours devoted to special education, programs such as TAM were not initiated in some school districts. So Toomey and her Working Group got to work.

“We now have a pilot program underway involving six school districts statewide that can take a more flexible approach to the unit count calculation and are not bound by the 12½ hour stipulation.”

But neither the need for early intervention nor greater inclusion may be the toughest hurdles parents with learning disabled children face. There’s a 900-pound gorilla that stalks both the near and far horizons for these parents. Its name is transition.

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