TOPICS > Education

Engaging Students With Learning Differences Early On

March 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Students with learning differences are twice as likely as their peers to drop out of high school, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Betty Ann Bowser visited an elementary school that practices early intervention -- engaging students with technology and art to improve their chances of earning a diploma.
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, how one school has succeeded in reducing the odds that a student with learning disabilities may drop out.

Past studies have found that these students drop out at more than twice the rate of their classmates.

NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports on what can be done in the classroom to prevent that. It’s for our series the American Graduate Project.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: On a recent Friday morning at the Henderson Inclusion Elementary School in Boston, there was organized chaos as nearly 250 students crowded into the auditorium. Then it was showtime.

The students were celebrating African-American History Month. But the show was also a celebration of a unique public school where one-third of the student body is disabled and where all the children are educated together in an inclusive setting.

Dr. Tom Hehir is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the country’s leading experts on special education.

Five Misconceptions About Learning Disabilities:

Race, culture economic status -- LD doesn't discriminate. It's real and affects people of all ages.Dr. Sheldon H. Horowitz, the National Center for Learning Disabilities

DR. TOM HEHIR, Harvard Graduate School of Education: It is not unusual that some kids don’t walk. It is not unusual that some kids don’t talk. It’s not unusual that some kids struggle learning how to read or process information. That’s the norm. And so that philosophy carries through to the whole school.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For the kids with learning disabilities, what goes on in the classroom is especially important.

Using federal government data, the National Center for Learning Disabilities says 20 percent of children with L.D. drop out of high school vs. 8 percent of the general population. And the center reports that half of secondary students with L.D. perform more than three grade levels below where they should be.

DR. TOM HEHIR: Not only is it more likely that kids with learning disabilities are going to drop out of school. It’s also less likely they’re going to reengage in education. That’s associated with unemployment, low wages. And there is evidence that there’s increased likelihood of getting in trouble in the community. And those are all bad outcomes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So the emphasis at Henderson is on early intervention, and a big part of that is technology. Former principal Dr. Bill Henderson realized more than 20 years ago how technology could help L.D. kids. At the time, he was going blind and had to learn braille from scratch. That gave him special insights.

DR. BILL HENDERSON, former principal, Henderson Elementary School: When we read, most people with their eyes, I now with my ears or with my fingers, you have to figure out what the text, print or braille dots are saying. That’s decoding.

Many children who have specific learning disabilities, in particular dyslexia, have to put extra energies and efforts into decoding text. You cannot read as much material. You can’t keep up with grade-level and rigorous material.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Current principal Patricia Lampron showed us how one second-grader with learning disabilities showed his comprehension of a story he’d read writing in longhand.

PATRICIA LAMPRON, principal, Henderson Elementary School: He wrote, not very neatly, “Rosa helped Blanca, and Blanca helped Rosa. I can be nice to others.”

He did exactly what the prompt asked him to do, but obviously he has a difficult time with spelling, handwriting. And is that a benchmark second-grade response? I would say, no, it isn’t.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Then, on another page, she showed us what the same student wrote using a computer to explain his comprehension of another story.

PATRICIA LAMPRON: He uses a text reader and a word-prompting software, and the word-prompting software helps him to produce something more on grade level, and definitely more thorough.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Every classroom is abuzz with these kinds of teaching devices, computers, iPads, digital audio programs. They allow students to learn a variety of different ways and at their own pace.

Two teachers are assigned to each class, working as a team. One is a general classroom professional. The other is a special education teacher. Together, they brainstorm what works for each student. This second-grade classroom of 23 students has seven disabled kids in it and each one works at their own speed.

So, for dyslexic kids like Ronan Gorman, comprehending text means using a traditionally textbook, an iPad and headphones.

Principal Lampron explained.

PATRICIA LAMPRON: Ronan can listen to the book also while he is reading along with the book. So sometimes he may use the book separately from the iPad or he can read it in digital format. And what digital format allows students to do is listen, as well as read along.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nine-year-old Ronan had been held back twice before he entered Henderson in September. His parents said he was unhappy and feeling like a failure.

His dad, Gerry, was especially upset by all of this because, like Ronan, he too is dyslexic. But in a few short months, things have turned around.

GERALD GORMAN, father: It’s almost emotional for me to talk about it, because, seeing him now, seeing him from where he was, and seeing me where I was at that age, he’s doing what I used to do when I was 14. He’s 9. So it’s — it’s just — it’s phenomenal.

ANN GORMAN, mother: First of all, he smiles a lot. He goes to bed every night with about five piles of books, which he always did. But he reads them now. And he used to say to me, “I’m never going to learn how to read this.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When Bill Henderson was principal, he realized, if kids like Ronan didn’t get help early, they would fail later on. So he came up with the team teaching idea and introduced a robust arts program.

DR. BILL HENDERSON: The arts were terrific for kids with print disabilities and dyslexia. There are many outstanding artists and visual artists and dancers and singers who have significant dyslexia. And they have a chance to shine and show their skills and their talents in a different medium. And print isn’t always the easiest way for them to do that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Henderson School has a full-time music teacher, several occupational therapists, a teacher who specializes in sensory therapy, and on the day we were in this second-grade classroom, there were five different teaching professionals helping just 23 students.

All that costs money. Under federal law, a child identified with learning disabilities must receive a free and appropriate public education up to the age of 18. Generally, the more the disabled a child is, the more money is allocated for his or her education.

But Harvard’s Hehir says there are many places in the country that don’t spend that money wisely by segregating L.D. kids in special education classrooms, which costs more than spreading it around in inclusive settings.

DR. TOM HEHIR: There’s a large number of kids who still are inappropriately separated from their peers. And, also, those kids — the kids who are getting the better programs are much more apt to be middle and upper-middle-class kids. Low-income kids are much more apt to be segregated.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: There are no figures on how many students go on to graduate from high school, but both Lampron and Henderson have followed many of their former students through the years, and say most of them are doing well.

DR. BILL HENDERSON: If we want kids to graduate from high school, then having a strong foundation at the elementary level is critical. And for kids with significant learning disabilities and significant attention-deficit disorders, having technologies, providing accommodations for reading and writing are critical.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: There are hundreds of children on the waiting list to get into the Henderson School, and they aren’t just students with disabilities.

Through the years, the reputation of the school has grown. And, today, it’s held up as a national model of what early intervention can do for children with learning difficulties.

MARGARET WARNER: American graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

On our website, we introduce to you to a one-time dropout who’s now a Harvard graduate student. Find out what advice he offers students and parents dealing with learning disabilities.