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© Troy Media
May 5, 2010
By Meryl D. Pearlstein
Special to Family Ties
Meryl Pearlstein’s story will resonate with every parent of a learning-disabled child. It is about how a public relations executive and her husband, James Wacht, a real estate developer, fought the system – and advocated for their son – so he could get the best education possible, and have what all parents want for their children – a fulfilling and meaningful life.
My son Evan was the class clown in third grade. He was amiable and funny but often unfocused and distracted. It took an astute teacher to recognize that this behaviour was probably a mask for a learning disability that affected his ability to process verbal and written information.
Four years earlier, Evan had been told to repeat nursery school – not because there was a learning issue but because the school believed that late-birthday boys were generally immature and that extra time would help establish stability and focus.
Thus began our journey into the world of learning disabilities and education, wending our way through a process that was often filled with guilt, frustration and anger, as my husband and I tried to figure out what our son was all about and how we could help him.
When first confronted with the possibility that Evan suffered from a learning disability, we experienced a full range of emotions, from disappointment (What, our beautiful son isn’t perfect?), guilt (What did we do wrong? Shouldn’t we have noticed this sooner?) and frustration (Why are so many so-called experts telling us so many disparate things?) to fear (Will our son forever suffer a stigma of being learning disabled?).
The awful stigma: “Special” kid
On the recommendation of a parenting organization, we began to investigate private schools with smaller class sizes. We desperately wanted to keep Evan in a mainstream school so that he could escape being labeled a “special” child.
A preliminary evaluation indicated that Evan’s learning disabilities were confined to language processing: He had no attention deficit disorders or physical issues, and he appeared bright and engaged. We transferred him in fifth grade to a well-regarded independent school that was highly structured and had small class sizes.
At first, Evan did passably well, but during his third year he began to really struggle, and his self-esteem and grades plummeted. The school offered only minimal learning support. To remedy this, we tried private tutoring with a learning specialist as well as a program designed to improve his listening comprehension. Nothing helped. Our daily conversations were filled with self-doubt and expressions of futility as we watched Evan continue to struggle with his classes. Worse still were the stressful evenings we spent at home helping Evan study for tests and complete his homework. Often these evenings would end in arguments and tears.
Acceptance of LD diagnosis
We eventually realized that Evan’s education required an acceptance of his LD and the development of strategies to deal with his issues. Equally important was the realization that Evan needed an environment that would support and encourage him so that he could emerge from his school experiences with his ego strong and his self-esteem intact. Our quest, then, was to better understand his disability and to find him an appropriate learning environment.
The next step was having a professionally administered psychological and learning evaluation performed on Evan to document his learning disabilities and offer recommendations for accommodations or extra assistance. The full diagnosis was “reading disorder, disorder of written expression and mixed receptive-expressive language disorder.”
Armed with the report, we visited our city’s Committee on Special Education (CSE), part of the Department of Education, where Evan was further tested and interviewed in order to identify a public school with appropriate learning resources. The schools suggested were ostensibly to help with greater one-on-one teacher-student contact and individualized learning. Unfortunately, the ones with available spots had classrooms with more than 30 students and no real provision for addressing Evan’s specific language processing issues.
Increasingly frustrated and nervous, we chose to explore the few private schools that focused on learning disabled children. In general, these schools had smaller classes and taught students according to their learning disability. The faculties at these schools were also trained in LD education. Our interviews were filled with answers, rather than questions, with Evan looking like an “opportunity” rather than a “failure.” As we toured the schools and observed the teachers in action, we actually smiled. We knew that we were finally heading in the right direction. These were places where Evan could get the support and guidance he needed.
Hit the jackpot
We felt we had won the lottery when Evan was accepted to Winston Prep, a private middle and high school in New York City developed for LD students. The school’s academic approach was enlightened, modeled on a philosophy of personalized education with children grouped by how they learn instead of on an age-based, one-size-fits-all learning curriculum. The good news was that due to several US Supreme Court decisions dating from 1993, funding could be secured for any child requiring special education within the school system. By first considering all public school options proposed by the CSE and then determining together with the CSE staff that a private school could better satisfy the needs of our child, we had the opportunity to obtain funding to help defray the cost of Evan’s need-focused education.
The many meetings with the CSE, psychologists and schools created a fair amount of stress within our family. Because my husband and I both worked full time and had little time to wade through the red tape that the funding process required, we engaged the services of a lawyer who specialized in obtaining tuition support. For us, it was worth the $2,500 investment per year; however, the process is something that anyone with the time and patience could undertake. Given that Winston’s tuition was significantly higher than that of a mainstream private school, as it included one-on-one learning support services, it was important for us to obtain financial assistance. We secured a refund of nearly 75 per cent of Evan’s tuition at Winston. (While current tuition is $46,500, the typical Winston family pays about $16,500 thanks to a variety of funding sources.)
Changing directions and success
From our perspective, the move to an LD school was right for our son. Once we understood that his academic failures were not due to a lack of desire or motivation but rather because of a genuine problem, we were able to accept him for who he was and not get upset with him for who he wasn’t. From Evan’s point of view, it was an embarrassment going from a “normal” environment to one where children were teased by outsiders for being “retarded” or for going to a “special” school.
“I’m no retard”
At times, his younger brother, Elias, was equally cruel, calling Evan a “retard” and other names whenever they fought. We were fortunate that Evan had a strong sense of self and a large network of friends from previous schools, all of which helped him transition with minimal trauma. As parents, we were open with Evan so that he always understood the reasons behind this type of education as well as its value, and we were equally open with our friends, most of whom had no experience dealing with LD children.
The five years that Evan spent at Winston, from 8th through 12th grade, were filled with successes as well as challenges. Motivated by a supportive and enlightened faculty and administration, Evan began to flourish. He built a network of friends at Winston that included both students and teachers. Outside of Winston, he was able to joke about being at a “special” school, referring in a level-headed way to his own idiosyncrasies as “Winston moments.”
Evan also developed an affinity for working with children and took a job at a summer camp, where he became one of the most popular counselors. The school encouraged him to continue his education at a higher level, guiding him to look at colleges and universities that offered appropriate learning support services. His teachers also encouraged him to further his work with children.
On the road to a productive life
After the initial academic stumbles from nursery school to an inappropriate mainstream middle school, Evan had found a school that supported and developed his academic abilities, his ability to self-advocate and his self-esteem, all critical for him to approach college and adulthood with confidence.
Currently a freshman at the University of Vermont, Evan has access to support services and has met with his professors to disclose his learning disabilities-or, as he calls them, his learning differences. Thus far, he hasn’t asked for any special assistance, but he won’t be shy about seeking it out if needed. The boy who once could not master a standardized test or a homework assignment without serious angst and many tears is now preparing for a career in the noblest profession of all: teaching.
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