Services help students with learning disabilities November 15, 2019 — by Kaasha Minocha Students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities share how they get help and resources from the staff of the special education academic department. Charles Schwab, Albert Einstein, Michael Phelps, Daniel Radcliffe, Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Aniston are among the many successful people who have struggled with different kinds of learning disabilities. They all learn and process information differently. But oftentimes, these disabilities are a kind of gift too. Special education teacher Danny Wallace has five special education classes, composed of students who are capable of grasping and applying the course material but can struggle with issues such as reading speed or the processing of language. If they were left on their own to learn, they would risk falling behind in classes they are otherwise intellectually able to handle. Though not all of the students in Wallace’s special education classes have a learning disability, some of them do struggle with dyslexia — a difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols and attention deficit disorder (ADD) — any of a range of behavioral disorders, including such symptoms as poor concentration, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. On a much broader scale, in the U.S., learning disabilities including dyslexia and ADD affect several students. They affect 14 percent of total public school enrollment, a total of 7 million students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Wallace is part of the school’s special education department, which provides support from the staff in the form of learning and reinforcing concepts and giving students resources such as extra practice or a resource class in which they provide tutoring, help with preparation of assessments and more. Wallace and five other teachers instruct these classes, which are capped at a maximum of 15 students. In total, there are roughly 250 to 300 students taking the classes. In a student’s schedule, the class is counted as one of their electives. Taking the resource class is not mandatory in order to be in special education, but it is discussed between teachers and students’ parents why it would be necessary to help a student in an area they are struggling in. For instance, if a student is diagnosed with a learning disability, but the student’s family does not want the child to take the class, it will be discussed on how the class would benefit the student and receive the academic support they need. In order to be considered into the program, a student needs to be assessed through the school psychologist and be analyzed through a Student Study Team (SST), which determines if a student has a specific learning disability or needs some help in an academic area. After the analysis, a decision will be made to see if a student qualifies for special education services. If a student does, then the school psychologist create a plan with the student’s family to see if the student would like to take the resource class. If the student doesn’t need the class, then the family will work something out with the school psychologist to find the best and most appropriate accommodations. In addition, the school has a Community Based Instruction Program that emphasizes life skills such as how to cook and how to stay healthy. Wallace finds that most of the time students struggle with subjects such as math and English. His class provides time for students to review concepts and study for tests, and allows him to proofread students’ essays and give advice on how to improve them. Additionally, he helps students with organization and study skills such as how to prepare for a test. He was inspired to help students who have learning disabilities because he experienced these struggles during his education and successfully completed college at UCLA. Wallace, who has dyslexia, said that when he was in school, said he remembered being called an “idiot” and “stupid” by his some of teachers. However, he said that the attitude toward students with learning disabilities is radically different at today’s Saratoga High. In his experience, all of his students have felt respected and welcome on campus. “I would never want that mistreatment to happen to my students,” Wallace said. “If it did, I would make sure it would never happen again as it can have a huge effect on someone, as they feel like they are not good enough.” One of Wallace’s colleagues, special education resource aide Tamara Coe, helps students taking math and science courses review concepts that they have difficulty comprehending. Students can meet with Coe either during tutorial or can arrange a time before or after school. While some students have modifications for homework they have to do, such as doing odd numbered problems instead of all of them, other students simply require Coe to guide their studying and monitor them so that they stay focused. Additionally, Coe described that for legitimate reasons, such as stress anxiety or needing more time to complete the assessment, students can go into the Testing Learning Center to take assessments after a teacher informs Lindsay Harris, one of the heads of the TLC. Teachers put assessments along with instructions in an envelope and then drop it off in a specified location. Harris then pick up the tests and waits for students to arrive. Junior Tyler Chaffin, who has been going to the TLC since his freshman year for occasional testing, said that it provides a stress-free environment and helps him focus better. “It’s a place that helps with being able to take a test in a quiet environment, he said. “It also provides less stress to a student because some students may be agitated seeing other students finish first or before them, or they may need extra help or [may need to] read through two or three times before they finally understand something on the test.” Additionally, Chaffin said that there are teachers and or aides who can help with questions students have. If the TLC staff can’t understand a part of the assignment, they call the teacher to ask questions about it. Coe said that for the most part, her students have felt pretty comfortable with the environment, and the majority of general education students have worked well with them to be inclusive and kind as well as responsive. One issue that her colleagues have faced, however, is that general education students don’t understand how to relate to students with learning disabilities, so they shy away. Spanish teacher Gina Rodriguez is another staff member who remembers struggling with dyslexia-type issues while in school, especially during stressful testing situations. It caused her problems in math as she would switch numbers. Remembering her own experiences, she tries to clearly explain the format of every test and quiz to minimize any anxiety her students might have. To adapt her teaching style for students who struggle with learning disabilities, Rodriguez gives them detailed copies of her class notes, tries to explain concepts thoroughly and checks to ensure that they understand the instructions for tests and in-class activities. She also aims to be available for extra help and practice tests during tutorial. “I use a variety of different reinforcement styles,” Rodriguez said. “For example, students often work with a partner or will get up and walk around the room for different activities.” Besides that, Rodriguez checks tests or quizzes right after students turn them in to make sure they followed the directions properly. If they haven’t, she goes over the test with them. “With providing extra help and a variety of teaching styles to cater to the needs of individual students, I hope that I accommodate for everyone to succeed,” Rodriguez said. All in all, many special education teachers and aides as well as general education teachers such as Wallace and Coe aim to provide special education students with a positive and enlightening high school experience, both academically and socially. They hope that general education students will interact with them frequently and kindly to develop strong tight-knit relationships. “Although there is always room for improvement, I have observed a striking culture of kindness among SHS students overall inside and outside of the classroom for students in both [the academic and community] special education departments,” Coe said.