Struggle with learning disability ends with high school graduation

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Nicole Roberts

Photo by John Booz

Nicole Roberts

Four years ago, instead of being excited about high school, Nicole Roberts was dreading it. After struggling with a learning disability in elementary school and barely finishing 8th grade, she envisioned more of the same at Hyde Park Academy.

And for a while, it was. As a freshman, Nicole earned mostly D’s and F’s. And her bad attitude and poor behavior made her abrasive and unapproachable with her classmates and teachers.

“I was really mean,” 18-year-old Roberts admits.

But with plenty of help from her mother and teachers, Nicole pushed past her learning difficulties and is now looking forward to college.

Nicole’s story is not the norm. At Hyde Park, 56 percent of learning-disabled freshmen who enrolled in 2000 had dropped out by 2004, according to data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

(Citywide, the figure was 44 percent.) And while 31 special education students are graduating this year from the school, only nine, including Nicole, say they plan to pursue secondary education.

Nicole’s story is particularly unusual in Chicago, says Loyola University education professor Joy Rogers, in part because schools in large urban districts are more likely to have low expectations for special education students.

“But what she did shows it can be done,” Rogers says. “Children can succeed if they are given the chance. It requires the imagination of people to expect more from them and give them opportunities to grow.”

Early diagnosis, but little help

Nicole was a 1st-grader at Park Manor Elementary in Greater Grand Crossing when her disability was diagnosed. In contrast, most learning-disabled students in CPS are not diagnosed until ages 8 to 10, around 3rd or 4th grade, data from the district show. One major goal of the reauthorized federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, known as IDEA, is to give more students a leg up with earlier diagnosis and intensive help.

Yolanda Hines, Nicole’s adoptive mother, says school staff told her Nicole needed a special education evaluation because she did not pay attention when they talked to her and acted out in class.

Again, Nicole was lucky. Hines followed up to make sure her daughter’s evaluation was carried out as soon as possible. Ellliott Marks, a resource and information specialist for the reform group Designs for Change, says parents often complain that schools take up to a year to begin the process.

“Parents ask teachers for an evaluation, but it is not put in writing so it doesn’t get done. It’s a huge problem,” says Marks. Under fire for high referral rates, some schools quit making referrals altogether and have told parents they couldn’t get an evaluation, Marks reports. “But that violates the law,” he adds.

The evaluation found that Nicole had attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, a syndrome characterized by poor attention span, weak impulse control and overactive behavior. (Because of a history of mental illness in her daughter’s biological family, Hines asked three hospitals to verify the evaluation.) Typically, children with ADHD are easily distracted and have difficulty following directions and paying attention.

Nicole’s Individualized Educational Plan, or IEP, recommended that she be placed in a regular classroom and pulled out for part of the day for extra help. But her mother says Nicole was never taught any strategies to help her overcome her learning problems, and was allowed to get away with doing nothing in class. Given free rein, Nicole in turn used her disability to get out of working.

“She would tell the teachers, ‘I don’t have to do anything. I have to take medication.’ I don’t think the expectations were high enough,” Hines says. “That’s why I kept pushing her.”

Nicola Kennedy, a special education teacher who tutored Nicole during the summer following her freshman year, says students like her process information more slowly and need help with reading comprehension and understanding math concepts. “Things need to be broken down for her, and directions have to be more detailed,” Kennedy explains. “She needs one-on-one time [with a teacher].”

Despite earning mostly D’s and F’s, Nicole was allowed to graduate because she was too old to stay in 8th grade. (Depending on their IEP, students in special education may not have to pass the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, to graduate.)

“The school said they could not hold her back,” says Hines.

Poor behavior to hide learning problems

At Hyde Park, Nicole, like any teenager, worried about fitting in. And she didn’t want to be singled out and teased about her disability. That’s a common concern among special education students, experts say, and leads many students to armor themselves with a tough, abrasive attitude.

“They are more likely to cut classes, join gangs or display behavior problem,” says Antoinette Harvey, the case manager for Hyde Park’s 275 special education students.

“I thought high school was going to be scary and I’d be embarrassed,” Nicole recalls. “I knew the work would be hard and I didn’t want to be picked out of the crowd as being dumb. So I was mean and sarcastic.”

Charles Michaels, a special education coordinator, says Nicole would often “just plop herself down [in the counselors’ office] and inject herself into conversations without waiting her turn. She would whine that this or that was happening to her. She wanted a lot of attention.”

Nicole’s behavior was never serious enough to warrant suspension, however. (Some advocates are concerned that schools will have an easier time suspending or expelling special education students with behavior problems under the reauthorized IDEA.)

To minimize Nicole’s behavior difficulties, Michaels, who helps with scheduling, says he “tweaked her classes a little bit. Because she was so vocal, Nicole didn’t need certain teachers because they would not put up with her. We fit her in classrooms she would be successful in.”

Nicole was placed in remedial English and math her freshman year, in inclusion classrooms with both regular and special education students taught by a regular teacher and a special education teacher.

“The ideal scenario is that you camouflage the special education teacher and all the kids think that the extra teacher is there to help all students, so those in special education don’t get singled out,” says Michaels.

But Nicole was worried about being teased and initially didn’t ask for help. But when she noticed that students without disabilities were seeking help, she decided to speak up, too.

“When there were writing prompts on the board, Nicole was hesitant to get started,” says special education teacher Sara Taylor. “So I’d ask her what she wanted to say. I’d help her organize and put her ideas on paper. Also, I’d take notes and have copies of all the assignments and she’d get those from me, too.”

The coaching she received at home was also crucial. Harvey says getting parents involved in their child’s education, as Hines was, can be more challenging when the student is in special education.

“Parents may be too busy or too tired to help their children,” says Harvey. “When kids don’t get parental support, they don’t make it.”

An incentive to succeed

Despite the support she received, Nicole still had a rough freshman year. Along with earning poor grades, she had problems dealing with classmates.

“They were telling me that I was dumb and that I was not going to make it. I almost thought about giving up totally,” she says. “But my mom told me, ‘You drop out of school, you drop out of my house.'”

Then, during her sophomore year, Nicole enrolled in a broadcasting class that sparked her interest in college and a career. “I was really motivated to do better,” Nicole says. “Plus I had a lot of encouragement from my teachers, my mom and counselors.”

But to make it to college, she knew she would have to push herself academically. So she began doing more: rereading assignments, asking for help, taking advantage of tutoring and learning to take her own notes.

Slowly her grades rose from D’s and F’s to C’s and a sprinkling of B’s her sophomore and junior years. This year, she made the B honor roll.

She learned to control her behavior, too. “I tease her all the time now,” Michaels says with a chuckle. “I ask her, ‘Nicole, why are you being so nice to me? What’s wrong? Are you sick?’ She has really matured.”

Nicole gives her teachers much of the credit. “They took me by the hand and showed me what I needed to do.” As for earning her degree, “It’s going to take time,” she acknowledges. “But I know I am capable of doing it.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or e-mail williams@catalyst-chicago.org.