Disabilities, Dyslexia, and D.C.
By Zach Ewell
For many children with disabilities a school’s failure to accommodate them with an appropriated learning plan can have large implications on their future. Falling behind in a curriculum leads to higher probabilities of poverty and criminal activity.
According to Hechinger Report.org children with disabilities make up at least one in three of juvenile arrests each year in America. When put in the context of students with disabilities, only eight states see students with disabilities graduating high school at a rate of over 75 percent. These states include Montana, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Jersey, according to the Huffington post. Among the worst performing states who’s special education student’s graduate high school just over 50 percent is the District of Columbia.
(All Prisoners statistic from the NAACP)
“We have some of the highest performing school systems in the area and yet significant numbers of students with learning differences are still falling behind,” President of the D.C. branch of the International Dyslexic Association, Marilyn Zecher said.
A D.C. native herself the-64-year-old attended public school in Montgomery County when she was a child. Although she did not have much of a problem learning at a young age, Zecher also struggled in high school due to her Dyslexia.
“According to the public schools I was just fine because I was reading with in that middle ground, and yet in my elementary school the principle told my mother that I had one of the highest IQs that they had tested,” Zecher said.
During her career in education Zecher has acted as an academic language therapist, tutor, and classroom teacher. A true veteran of the educational system of the DMV area Zecher says part of her career was purely on picking up the slack of the public schools in the area.
“For years I made my living on the frailer of the public schools,” Zecher said. “I had one youngster who was in a very high level public school system and this child was gifted and talented, that means he had a high IQ, great intellectual curiosity. He had not been taught to read… So by the time he got to 7th grade I taught him how to read.”
For Zecher her main fight lies in helping students who struggle with the learning disability Dyslexia. According to Austin Learning Solutions one in ten people are estimated to having a type of dyslexia.
“We know we have over 70% of men in jail, have reading problems,” Zecher said. “What does that tell us? We know that we have of 90% of students who walk into a special education classroom has language biased problems and yet the special educator has had to devote equal time to all those disabilities. Has never really been taught to teach reading, they have been taught to use accommodations.”
According to Zecher the public school’s failure is due to a misconception of what accommodations are really for. Instead of teaching students valuable skills, students with special needs are given Individual Education Programs (IEP) to help a student compensate for their unfair disadvantage.
“Accommodations are there to level the playing field; they are not there to replace skills, so when schools turn children away they have only themselves to blame,” Zecher said. “They didn’t teach reading they didn’t teach spelling, they didn’t teach handwriting.”
For Cheryl Shapiro pinpointing what a child’s disability is and the accommodations that should come with it is her job. A psychologist working out of Eastern Market D.C., the 46-year-old administers tests to both children and adults who are suspected of having disabilities.
“When I do a psycho education evaluation I look at different cognitive abilities that underline learning, things like attention, how one processes information and then problem salving and reasoning skill which is also important to learning,” Shapiro said. “Then I actually look at their factual skills such as reading and righting and math.”
Parents learn about Shapiro’s work through other parents who have had their kids tested by her. Although most of Shapiro’s costumers come from her area of southeast she hopes D.C. schools become fairer in the coming future.
“In this neighborhood parents are actually getting tutors if there kids actually have a need, say there is a learning disability, then having extra services is actually important,” Shapiro said. “I think there is a wide range, you know some are better then others and that is unfortunate. It would be great if the city could create a system were all the public schools are equally good. I don’t know how realistic that is.”
Dealing with parents of students with disabilities Jillann Mode, a special education teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School says one of the most common questions asked by mothers and fathers is if their child is getting all of their accommodations.
“They’re [parents] biggest concern is if the kid is in the right classroom and getting the accommodations they need, Mode said. “A lot of times you will find kids with special needs come from low income and minority families.”
Mode explained that sometimes if a child does not receive their specific accommodations then the school will award that family with free tutoring lessons. However if the parents can’t afford a tutor by themselves then their child usually does not receive extra help outside of school. According to the National Association of Independent Schools 25 percent of the top 100 performing students uses tutors.
Although it would be an easy solution to blame the teachers and the schools Marilyn Zecher doesn’t believe they are the ones to blame. Instead of focusing on blame she says the focus should really be on evidence.
“A lot of parents of students who haven’t learned how to read want to go and blame the teachers, they want to blame the schools,” Zecher said. “The fault really lies in a lack of change in response to what the evidence really says.”
Zecher says that the educational method of Phonics is vital to the teaching the English language. A Phonics lesson plan centers on the verbal sounds of spelling patterns in words. Without a drive to read, and proper education in English, students can experience low levels of vocabulary.
“They were experiencing a poverty in vocabulary,” Zecher said. “For every year a child doesn’t read, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read that child can fall as many 4500 words behind his peers, every year, so imagine what that is like when you get to eight or ninth grade, when you have to take AP and excel.”
For helping children with disabilities, one the most important acts a teacher can do is identifying a student’s disability at a young age.
(Interview with Marilyn Zacher)
“Really what we want is for classroom teachers to be trained to identify those children who will have language biased problems, and intervene quickly because we know the sooner you see with it the less problems a child will have,” Zecher said. “And yet our school use what we call the weight to fail model. Oh its developmental he’ll grow out of it, he’s doing fine, she’s doing fine and then we get to fourth grade and they are still guessing at words based on the first level.”
For Dyslexia in particular, the word has been dropped by many around the nation for its “interchangeable” meaning, according to WJHG News. Zecher says that instead of using the term dyslexia, instructors have been dividing the disability into separate terms. Terms such as reading disorder, spelling disorder and math disorder have been used in place. However different types of dyslexia include problems with reading, writing and math.
“One of the problems is that we give students accommodations instead of continuing to teach them skills,” Zecher said. “Public schools are required to give them access to traditional curriculum. They are not required to teach skills above the basic elementary level, and that is part of our problem.”