Help to overcome lifetime of struggle is available in Vt.

The Education Beat

College: People with learning disorders can prove their abilities at Landmark.

March 12, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

FROM HIS JOB as vice president and dean of Landmark College in Putney, Vt., Maclean Gander looks down a long trail of "hurt," to when his students were 3 and 4 years old.

Gander works for the only accredited college in the United States created for people with learning disabilities -- neurological disorders that interfere with a person's ability to store, process or produce information. Students go to Putney after struggling for a lifetime to overcome attention deficit disorder, dyslexia (Victorians called it "word blindness") and other learning problems.

These tend to be problems that are not outgrown, Gander said last week at the Baltimore convention of the National Association of Independent Schools. But they can be overcome with prescriptive instruction, intensive tutoring and the application of technology (such as voice-recognition software) designed to treat disabilities.

At age 6 or 66, the symptoms are similar, and so is the frustration. Gander demonstrated how frustrating it can be at a workshop for private school teachers and administrators who are educating more learning-disabled students.

Write a couple of sentences about your favorite place in the world, Gander instructed -- but do it with your nondominant hand. The educators tried it, producing barely legible, shaky messes.

Now, Gander said, imagine a life in which every activity that should be automatic "becomes a cognitive task. You have to think consciously about everything you do. In reading, you're putting all of your effort into decoding."

To demonstrate the memory problems experienced by many disabled people, Gander read lists of common but unrelated words and then asked the educators to write them down. He started with three: glass, book, thread. No trouble there. Little trouble with four: house, night, trunk, doll.

But at five and six, many in the audience faltered. Only two in about 40 adults could recall, in order, a list of seven words a few seconds after Gander read it. Many learning-disabled people suffer from auditory short-term memory problems, he said, and drop out after recalling only three or four words.

By definition, learning-disabled people are of normal or above-normal intelligence. Gander said many of Landmark College's 350 students are brilliant. Some have extraordinary music and art abilities, and those with attention deficit disorders often possess extraordinary gifts. "This nation almost surely was founded by people with ADHD," Gander said.

Yet often the disabilities are missed or misdiagnosed at early ages. Children are shunted off to "special education" classes -- particularly in cities -- where too often they receive instruction that is anything but special.

Another problem, said Gander: "Today's classrooms are populated by [teachers] who were in yesterday's graduate schools," where they learned the "whole language" approach to reading. Whole language, with its lack of direct, specific instruction in reading, "is harmful to learning-disabled kids," Gander said.

"In our culture, you have to fail before you can be identified as having a learning disability," Gander added. "That's crazy. The real action has to be at the early ages. The trouble is, we don't have the resources to address the issues when we discover them."

Students pay $32,000 a year to attend Landmark, but the 3-1 student-faculty ratio ensures that they receive plenty of individualized attention.

Because so many students have attention deficit problems, classes are shorter but meet more frequently. Professors use visual techniques in their instruction. And students can take as many as 10 semesters to graduate from the junior college, after which they're guaranteed admission as juniors to about 20 four-year colleges across the nation.

For many, said Gander, Landmark is a last-chance college. They've been failed and shoved from pillar to post for an academic lifetime. Earning a Landmark degree is proof that they aren't -- and never were -- stupid.

`Sesame Street' characters star in literacy packets

Big Bird thinks reading starts in the nest.

Children's Television Workshop, producer of "Sesame Street," has created a multimedia kit, "Sesame Street Beginnings: Language to Literacy," which gives tips for developing children's literacy from birth to age 3.

With a grant from the Prudential Foundation, 75,000 free kits will be distributed. Each contains a video that features "Sesame Street" characters, print components and an audio cassette.

"There is biological evidence that positive interaction with caring adults literally stimulates a child's brain growth," the workshop said in a news release.

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