Bill and Suzanne Mannion watched their older daughter, Emma, struggle during first grade. Other students made fun of her for having trouble with simple addition, and the Mannions could see their daughter’s self-esteem drop. They feared she might get held back a grade and worried that might further lower her confidence.
After Emma was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyscalculia—difficulty in compre-hending numbers and arithmetic—the Mannions moved their two kids (Emma is 10, Anna 9) to St. Clement Mary Hof-bauer School in Baltimore, where Emma is part of a program that gives her the ac-ademic support she needs. Called PRIDE (for Pupils Receiving Inclusive Diversified Education), the K-8 program run by the Archdiocese of Baltimore focuses on helping students with low- to high-average intelligence and mild to moderate learning disabilities.
Students spend language arts and math periods with their PRIDE teacher and classmates, and then spend the remaining school day—homeroom, social studies, religion, etc.—with the rest of their peers.
“It’s great for the kids,” says Kate Dannals, St. Clement’s school guidance counselor. “It gives them a chance to have a Catholic education and be part of a smaller, more structured community with faith-based values, while getting the educational support that they need.” PRIDE class sizes are small, which allows instructors to focus on each stu-dent’s particular learning style and to suggest accommodations that help in other classes, as well. For instance, during regular class periods, Emma sits at the front to minimize distractions, receives study guides and opts to use one separate notebook for each class, instead of a big notebook divided into sections.
“The first year in PRIDE, we saw Emma smiling more,” Bill Mannion says. “You could see she was happier and felt more accepted. You could see how confi-dent she was getting.”
By third grade—her second year in PRIDE—Emma won an academic achievement award for most improve-ment. During one semester in fourth grade, she made the honor roll.
LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD Many parents want their children to receive a private or parochial school education. But if those children have learning or developmental disabilities, there’s no guarantee they’ll receive the help they need in a traditional classroom setting. Maybe they’ll struggle through, feeling dumb. Maybe they’ll get picked on. In the worst case, they might give up on themselves.
“Unlike public schools, private schools have no responsibility per se to meet all accommodations,” says Paula McCormick, an independent special education advo-cate in Glen Burnie. “Many have a great attitude and want to do what they can to help the student, especially if the student is already placed there and is part of the community.”
The first step is to figure out what’s wrong. As part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school dis-tricts must seek children with learning disabilities who may be eligible for special education services. Often, though, dis-covery begins with teachers and parents who notice a child is having difficulty in one or more academic areas. Parents can then turn to their local education agency to see what types of testing it provides. Parents might also visit pediatricians, psychologists and other outside experts for specific tests. Getting good diagnostic data is crucial, because it informs which changes will make the biggest difference and provides a starting point for negoti-ating with the child’s school.
Accommodations can include extra time to take tests, preferential seating to minimize distractions, or various high and low-tech solutions, such as a calcu-lator for math, a computer for taking notes, or books on tape instead of read-ing. Knowing which accommodations might help means understanding the child in question. Parents, teachers and the children themselves need to learn as much as they can about a particular dis-ability and ways to get past it.
“Learning disabilities go along with other difficulties,” says McCormick, “in-cluding organization, study skills, social and emotional needs, self-esteem and the ability to advocate for their own needs. Students need to be able to know what they need and know how to ask. They need the language to say, ‘I need these specific accommodations and this is why.’”
BEYOND ACCOMMODATIONS: SPECIAL SCHOOLS
In some cases, a child might benefit more from attending a public school—if its services meet the student’s needs—or a special education school.
“Teacher-to-student ratios are gener-ally smaller in a specialty classroom,” McCormick says, “and they have special-ized materials.”
Ben Shifrin, head of school at the Jemicy School in Owings Mills, believes learning should be exciting and fun. For children with dyslexia, however, he knows it can be anything but. In the sec-ond grade, Shifrin’s teacher held one of his papers up to the class and said, “Now here’s an example of careless work.” His offense? The young Shifrin, who was dyslexic but didn’t know it, had trans-posed letters in some written words. He went home, humiliated, and soon began dreading school. To this day, he feels a sting when remembering the incident.
That turned out to be a formative experience for Shifrin, however. A few years later, his dyslexia was finally diag-nosed and a teacher took an interest in helping him learn to read. Shifrin grad-uated from college with top honors and went on to graduate school. He followed his passion into special education, and is now an advocate for children with dyslexia and other learning differences.
Shifrin notes that learning differences don’t go away; instead, they are some-thing each person must learn to live with. Nor does having a learning differ-ence, such as dyslexia, mean a person can’t succeed.
“Our brains are wired to speak,” Shifrin says. “Reading is something we created, and not all brains make that connection. It has nothing to do with intelligence.”
At the Jemicy School, which serves children in grades 1 through 12, special-ized curricula help children learn to read and hands-on, experiential programs put the fun back into school. And then there are the canine companions. Teach-ers whose dogs pass a certification exam can bring their pets to campus and into their classrooms (barring any children with allergies), where children can play with or read to the dogs.
“Having the dogs there produces miracles in our children,” says Shifrin. “It takes the anxiety away if a child can read to a dog. This animal is a safe ‘person’ who is not going to evaluate them.”
SUPPORTING COMPLEX NEEDS For children and young adults with severe learning issues, physical disabili-ties and medical conditions, challenges go beyond basic accommodations. At the Delrey School in Lansdowne, students aged 2 through 21 with very complex needs receive care, such as therapeutic feeding and physical therapy, in addition to education. Most of Delrey’s students are not on a diploma track, but the school tries to follow the current public school curriculum, says Principal Mimi Wang. Academic achievement, however, is not the only measure of success.
“With our therapeutic feeding proto-col, for instance, the goal is for the student to be able to oral feed, so they don’t have to rely on a tube,” says Wang.
Physical therapists work with students to build motor development and use the school’s Sensory Processing Room to help children who can’t tolerate certain textures, bear weight or place themselves or others in space. The room has protected floors and walls, special lighting, multisensory learning materi-als and speaker/amplification boxes, all designed to stimulate the senses in a safe environment.
For the past 25 years, the school has also run a community daycare for typically developing children aged 2 to 5. The youngsters spend time with Delrey students, integrating both groups of children and thereby broadening the definition of “normal.”