Thursday, April 19, 2007

Learning deficit doesn’t stop degrees

Students with dyslexia or autism must dig to find the right college after high school

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Applying to college can be a daunting task.

Factor in a learning disability, such as dyslexia or autism, and it becomes more of a challenge.

But Carroll and Frederick school systems and organizations are working to assist students with disabilities by providing them and their parents with resources and support systems.

To help make the transition from high school to college, Carroll County Public Schools will hold an informational Transition Connections Fair from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on April 27 at Carroll Community College.

Frederick County Public Schools held its fair on March 30 at Frederick Community College, giving students with disabilities the opportunity to tour the campus and attend sessions to help them with their decisions for life after high school.

“It’s always a challenge,“ said Michelle Badalato, chair of Carroll County’s Special Education Citizens Advisory Council, regarding students with disabilities applying to college.

The advisory council is a parent advisory group run independently from the public school system.

Badalato said it is common for students to become frustrated and overwhelmed with their performance at school and to have no desire to continue.

“What happens so often with a lot of these children, they just end up giving up or dropping out of school,“ she said. “They can just get so frustrated without the proper support.“

About one in five students are diagnosed with a learning disability, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Transition fairs provide students an opportunity to learn what colleges will expect of them.

Not a college barrier

Alexis Ott, 23, who is dyslexic and who recently attended a speech by a teen with dyslexia at the Friendship School in Eldersburg, said she didn’t receive any helpful advice from her high school when she tried to find a college.

“When I went to the guidance counselor’s office, they pointed me to a stack of books and said, ‘Look there,’“ said Ott of Emmitsburg, who attended Catoctin High School in Thurmont.

Based on advice from a friend, Ott visited Landmark College in Vermont, a college that helps students who have learning disabilities. The college offers associate degrees that guarantee students to transfer to about 20 institutions, such as American University in Washington, D.C.

Ott received her associate degree and transferred to a California college that didn’t have the support she needed. She came back home and attends Frederick Community College, where she said she is comfortable.

In the fall, she will transfer to Mount Saint Mary’s University to major in art education.

One of the people Ott credits for helping her along the way is Teresa Ankney of Frederick.

Ankney is dyslexic, as are her children, and heads Friendship School in Eldersburg. The school provides education and tutoring for children in grades K through eight who have dyslexia.

Students who attend Friendship tend to go on and enroll in honors classes, she said. “They’re motivated by their success because they’re remediated enough.“

Students who have dyslexia don’t always strive to go to the college that can accommodate them the most or receive the best help, Ankney said.

When Ankney’s son looked for colleges, he wanted to go to a school that had an engineering program and a major he wanted. “We didn’t pick a school because of a support system,“ she said. “We picked it because of his major or program.“

He was accepted to University of Maryland, College Park, Hood College and George Mason University, she said.

Though he chose a college with his major, she said he still wanted a college that recognized he could do his work regardless of dyslexia. “He didn’t want to go to a college that discriminates against dyslexia.“

Searching for colleges

Finding the right college for a student who has dyslexia comes down to how the college handles disabilities, Ankney said.

“A language-based disability is invisible,“ she said. “You don’t see that person as disabled when you see them. It depends on the mentality of the institution and how much they know.“

Faculty should know how to handle and accommodate the student, she said. Students should contact students with disabilities offices and find an advocate within the office to communicate the student’s priorities, she said.

However, students learn on their own which teachers help them more than others.

“The key is being an advocate for yourself,“ Ankney said.

If students do not tell teachers ahead of time that they need more time to write a paper because of their dyslexia, then the teacher will not help, she added.

Ankney recalled her own experience in college. “Even myself, I’m dyslexic. I made it through grad school,“ she said. “I got my Ph.D., and I hired an editor to edit my dissertation.“

Beth Rhodes, who coordinates special education for Frederick County schools, urges communication between students and colleges.

“We usually tell students who have a learning disability to contact the schools and ask them what services and resources they offer,“ Rhodes said, adding that colleges don’t have to provide accommodations, such as people to take notes or rephrase passages for those students.

Becoming a self-advocate

Proper support for parents is also important for students with disabilities to obtain self-advocacy skills, said Cindy Senseney, a parent educator for the Partners for Success Center.

The center is based within Carroll County Public Schools, and is open to parents who need guidance with the special education process. Staff works directly with parents, directing them toward resources, and the center has a library of books and videos.

Senseney said parents commonly have questions regarding the process that identifies students with disabilities, what resources they are eligible for and how to go about obtaining those resources. By informing parents and having them work through the process with their students, they will be more likely to seek out assistance on their own.

“Once students get to college,“ Senseney said, “they’re going to have to be able to self-advocate and say, ‘Can I have more time,’ or ‘I need to sit in the front.’“

Frederick County has a Partners for Success program that provides materials and workshops for parents and relatives. It is one of the sponsors for a family support picnic on Saturday.

Ott suggests students identify their needs. “Look at what type of support the school gives and what type of learning services they have.“

Ott finds she needs more time on tests and that teachers are willing to help once they know about her disability. “They’ll give me whatever I need.“

Colleges vary on the assistance they provide, because of costs and policies. Public school systems have a mandate to provide certain services.

“[Frederick County schools must comply] with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and that is a law of entitlement,“ Rhodes said. “They are entitled to services to meet their needs.“

A “big difference“ exists between what accommodations are made for students with disabilities in high school and college, she said.

“Once they get a diploma or exit public education in another way ... they are under the [Americans with Disabilities Act],“ which she said is funding based and though students can be eligible for services they may not be available due to costs or extensive waiting lists.

Ankney suggested the most cost-effective solution for students is to find a good community college that can help. “The best thing to do is go into a good community college, get a solid foundation in education, then transfer.“

Events for Students with Disabilities

Carroll County’s Special Education Citizens Advisory Council and Superintendent Charles Ecker will hold a town meeting 7-9 p.m. today at the County School Building, 125 N. Court St., Westminster to discuss a new reading plan, which would help identify children earlier who are not progressing.

Frederick County families with children with special needs are invited to attend the Family Support Picnic from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday at Breezy Hills Stables, 15117 Mud College Road, Thurmont. Call 301-694-9002.

The Transitions Connections Fair to help Carroll students transition to life outside high school will be held from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. April 27 at Carroll Community College, 1601 Washington Road, Westminster. Call 888-221-9748.