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Mark Nelson poses for a photo at Citrus College in Glendora, California.
Mark Nelson poses for a photo at Citrus College in Glendora, California. Credit: Credit: Melissa Lyttle for HuffPost

While Thorossian believes Nelson’s case was an anomaly for her district, aspects of his experience are replayed over and over in schools across the country. Interviews with more than 40 parents and students and 50 experts and advocates from 34 states painted a picture of low expectations and constant battles to make sure students get the support they need. College-bound students with disabilities were put in low-level classes, students sat in segregated classes despite the wishes of their parents and assignments didn’t match the ability levels of students — some were way too hard, and others far too easy.

Who is in Special Education?

Students who are diagnosed with one or more of the 13 disabilities covered by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act qualify for special education. Those disabilities include learning disabilities, autism, emotional disturbance, and hearing impairment. Within each disability, there is variance in severity and how the disability reveals itself in a classroom.

Janae Cantu, who has dyslexia, recalls that as a sixth-grade student in Oklahoma, she started to notice that she was consistently learning in a separate classroom with a small group of students, and her assignments were drastically different from her peers’.

“What kind of drives me up the wall was why was I not doing the same stuff the other kids were doing?” said Cantu, who recently graduated from the University of the Ozarks in Arkansas. “I understand getting assistance and things explained to me differently, but why weren’t we doing the same stuff?”

“I’m not incapable of understanding it, you just have to present it to me in a different way,” she added.

In Chouteau High School, as a college-bound student, Cantu spent most of her day in general education classes, but because of her dyslexia diagnosis, for one period each day during freshman year, the school assigned her to a special education class where she completed activities like building cars out of cereal boxes and racing them.

“It wasn’t helping me in reading or spelling or anything like that,” Cantu said. “It wasn’t really something that taught me skills to apply to my school work.”
Related: STUDENT VOICE: They told me I’d never go to college but I just finished my freshman year — what about all the other students with autism?
Glen Bibelheimer, Chouteau’s principal, said that while he cannot speak to the specifics of Cantu’s experience, the school tries to ensure all students are “career ready and college ready.”

“If you’re giving kids the answers, you’re not helping them at all. You’re hurting their future.”

“It’s not just one class that’s going to do it or not do it,” Bibelheimer said. The class Cantu described counts toward graduation requirements and is offered for students with disabilities in partnership with the University of Oklahoma. The goal of the class is to introduce students to technology. In addition to designing and racing cars, students learn how to use graphic design software under the instruction of a special education teacher.

General education students take a different computer class to meet the graduation requirement, although students with disabilities may also be placed in that class depending on several factors, like availability, student interest and counselor or parent input. Students can also drop a class during the first ten days if they are unhappy with it, Bibelheimer said.

Students with disabilities may be preemptively placed in the special education class as freshmen because school officials are just getting to know their ability levels, Bibelheimer added. “As we meet a student as a freshman at the door, not all of [their ability] is apparent as of yet,” Bibelheimer said. “When we figure out who these students are and what they can do, that’s when we try to meet them where they are.”

Special education students across the country reported low expectations in school, regardless of their actual ability level or future plans. The vast majority of those interviewed said that the problem often isn’t the fault of individual teachers, but a failure of the system. Districts have no financial incentive to go above and beyond for them. Poor education for special education students typically starts in elementary school, most often with a student not being given the services to which they are entitled or not being properly diagnosed.

By the time those students reach high school, they may be several grade levels behind their peers, with the clock ticking. “The older a child gets the harder it is to make up for lost time,” said Pam Lindemann, founder of IEP Advocate in Florida, which helps families navigate special education. “It’s just a reality thing. You have a limited time to make things change.”

One Minnesota parent, Sarah, felt that urgency when her son, Brad, got to high school. (Their last name is being withheld at their request that Brad not be publicly identified as having a disability.) Brad was first enrolled in special education in second grade. Like Nelson, he has dyslexia, along with dysgraphia, which makes writing difficult for him. But unlike Nelson, he was constantly placed in general education classes that were too difficult because teachers didn’t realize how much trouble he had with reading and writing and that he was falling behind. They assumed that he didn’t want to do the work, not that he couldn’t do it without support, his family believes.

“They don’t understand,” Sarah said. “In Brad’s case, he’s a super-smart kid who’s covering up for his deficits and they don’t care. They don’t get it. His test scores don’t show it.”

A Minnesota parent, Sarah, sent this writing sample of her son’s ninth-grade work to her superintendent in a letter that argued her son’s disabilities were not being taken seriously by his teachers.
A Minnesota parent, Sarah, sent this writing sample of her son’s ninth-grade work to her superintendent in a letter that argued her son’s disabilities were not being taken seriously by his teachers. Credit: Photo courtesy Sarah

Brad did well on multiple-choice standardized tests because he had memorized enough words to grasp the meaning of short questions and text excerpts. The set of words he knew by sight helped him choose correct answers. “His system fails when he has to determine random words or subjects,” his mom wrote in a letter to the superintendent in April 2014. On the longer assignments he had to write for class, his work looked more like that of an elementary school student than a high schooler, with what his mom called “minimalist handwriting.”

Related: Unmet Needs: Children with disabilities caught in the voucher crossfire

After getting several Ds in the first few semesters, Brad failed two courses during his second semester of sophomore year of high school. Sarah filed a complaint with the state and went through mediation, which earned Brad the chance to use assistive technology, allowed him to make up some of his failed classes and paid for private tutoring and an outside evaluation.

That evaluation confirmed Sarah’s beliefs: Brad’s reading comprehension scores were above average for his grade level, but his scores in fluency and accuracy were extremely low. He scored in the fifth percentile for reading unknown multisyllable words. It meant that Brad could get the gist of a text, but was unable to decode individual words he had never seen before. He was missing a foundational reading skill.

As part of the mediation, the school district paid for Brad to get outside tutoring to learn reading strategies, lessons he began the summer before his senior year in 2016.

Sarah still worries that he lost out on 10 years of practice in reading and writing, and he still barely passed his senior year math classes. She suspects he either has undiagnosed numeracy problems or that his dyslexia and dysgraphia affect him in the subject. Either way, he didn’t get the help in math that he eventually received in English, so he saw a tutor this summer to make up for it.

When Brad was in elementary school, he said he wanted to go to MIT and become an engineer. He graduated high school this year with a 1.9 GPA and was rejected by the University of Wisconsin-Stout and the University of North Dakota. He’s attending community college this fall and is doing well so far, but Sarah said that even the process of enrolling there was difficult — years of struggling at school and not being understood have left him with self-doubt and anxiety.

Brad said that overall he had a good high school experience; he made great friends and enjoyed most of his classes. But it could have been better.

“Do I think the school did enough? Not really,” he said. “Did I think they did an okay job? Yeah, it was okay. But I don’t think a school should be going for okay. I think they should be going for good, or maybe better than that, at least.”

Special Education GlossaryIEP: Every student covered under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act receives an IEP, or an Individual Education Program. This lengthy plan details a student’s current performance levels, goals for the next year, the classes a student will take, and any accommodations or modifications the student will receive in classes.

Transition plan: The transition plan is part of an Individual Education Program and must be developed before a student with a disability turns 16, according to federal law. This plan uses student interests and other information about a student to outline post-high school goals.

Accommodations: Accommodations include strategies like allowing a student to take extra time on a test, type an assignment instead of hand writing it, or sit in an area that helps a student focus. These are described in a student’s IEP.

Modifications: Modifications are changes in assignments and curriculum meant to assist students with disabilities in mastering content, such as providing fewer answer choices on assignments or tests, or providing text at an appropriate reading level for a student.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with the Huffington Post. Read the whole series, “Willing, able and forgotten: How high schools fail special ed students,” here. Sign up for our newsletter.

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