Special education pupils mostly learning disabled 83% have normal IQ, but have trouble reading, writing, communicating

November 09, 1997|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Winfield Elementary School fourth-grader Eric Combs is

TC bright student who uses big words like "evaporate" when he makes up stories about Superman and Lex Luther.

But when he tries to write the story on paper, it comes out in letters that spell nothing, and a stream of words that bear no resemblance to what he has composed in his mind.

While public perception of special education is linked mainly to students who are mentally retarded, nothing could be further from reality.

Most of Carroll County's special education students are like Eric, an intelligent child who has a learning disability that makes it hard for him to read and write at the level of his intelligence.

Of the 3,772 Carroll County students receiving special education, 83 percent have either a learning disability or a speech and language disability. They are students with average to above-average intelligence but have difficulty reading and writing or otherwise communicating.

The 125 Carroll students who are mentally retarded make up only 3.3 percent of the children receiving special education.

Teacher Stephanie Tighe held Eric Combs' original attempt at the manuscript in one hand, and the typed version he wrote with the help of computer software in the other.

The computer printout is a fluent account of a confrontation between the superhero and arch villain: "Superman put Lex Luther in a place where not even his incredible brain could get him out -- the City Jail!"

"If you looked at this," Tighe said of the manuscript, "would you ever think this child could use a word like 'incredible?' "

In all those cases, the children by definition have at least average intelligence, but their performance in school doesn't match it without extra help or time.

Sarah Jane Holdt coordinates 42 speech and language therapists who work with Carroll students who have problems in those areas. This disability includes more than articulation and stuttering, and covers the problems students might have perceiving all kinds of communication.

"When the teacher or parent says, 'It's just about time to go,' and the child takes out a toy, they're oblivious to the transition that's coming," Holdt said.

While some of these language and learning disabilities are less obvious to society, teachers know that they can seriously limit a child's progress in school, Holdt said.

"The large piece of this is how crucial communication is as a life skill," Holdt said. "It really is the framework for being successful and independent."

Tighe, a special education teacher at Winfield, works in a room where learning-disabled students come to spend about 90 minutes three days a week on reading and writing or other trouble spots. But the rest of the time, they attend class with their peers.

In classrooms that have learning disabled or other impaired students, a special education teacher works alongside the regular teacher, sometimes providing modified directions or reading the directions to the child.

"This is like a haven for them," Tighe said of her classroom. She spends a lot of time at the beginning of the year talking to them about how they can use the computers, reading materials and other learning aids in the room, and how all this will help them succeed in class.

"I tell them, 'This is the room that's going to make you what you want to be,' " she said.

Much of what Holdt, Tighe and other special education teachers do is evolving. Holdt said her therapists regularly take continuing education courses. Much has changed, for example, since she began in the field in 1970.

"I was the first speech therapist in a central-West Virginia county, and I had the whole county to myself," she said. "There was no such thing as special education."

The groundbreaking federal legislation that required states to provide access to public education for the disabled came in 1975, although some states such as Maryland had started earlier in the 1970s.

Now, Carroll schools and agencies such as the Infants and Toddlers Program run by the Carroll County Health Department are in contact with pediatricians to catch developmental disabilities at a much earlier age.

"The first five years of language development are crucial," Holdt said. "They set the tone."

Tighe comes from the perspective of not only a teacher but a parent. Her oldest child, Deirdre, now a freshman at South Carroll High School, has a learning disability. But when Deirdre was in kindergarten, Tighe had never heard of such a thing.

Deirdre was a bright, verbal preschooler whose educated, attentive parents read to her daily and who could hold up her end of a conversation with any grown-up.

Her parents had noticed that she didn't like to do new things and often wanted to play alone, but chalked it up to her personality or position as an oldest child in a family of three.

"But in kindergarten, the teacher said to me, 'You need to watch her,' " Tighe said. But the teacher did not elaborate or recommend testing.

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