Mother sacrifices all for daughter's literacy

Court sides with her against school system

November 11, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Karen Hetmanski has a high school diploma, but her life has been a series of low-paying jobs and disappointments. At 37, she reads like a third-grader.

The Millers Island woman has launched a crusade - there really is no other word for it - to keep the same thing from happening to her daughter, Amanda Watts. Amanda, who will be 13 next month, can barely read.

"Education is very important to me, because I don't have an education," said the jobless Hetmanski, who has spent thousands of dollars on her cause and put her house up for sale. "That's why I am fighting so hard."

Blaming Baltimore County's schools for Amanda's failures and fed up with her lack of progress, Hetmanski took them to court to force them to help her child.

In July, Karen Hetmanski won, though her struggle is far from over.

Administrative Law Judge Mary Shock wrote in a 19-page decision that "the gap between the Student's cognitive ability and her performance has widened rather than decreased during her school career. I find the Student's de minimis educational progress to be the deciding factor in this case."

Amanda, who has attended public schools since kindergarten, has long taken special education courses, most recently at General John Stricker Middle School in Dundalk. In seventh grade, she has trouble recognizing words on the page, doesn't understand how sounds blend, doesn't know her multiplication tables.

Her diagnosis is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, with learning disabilities, with dyslexia. The learning problems have brought on emotional troubles, according to her mother and testimony.

But, as Columbia psychologist Vincent P. Culotta testified, Amanda's disabilities aren't severe enough to keep her more than a grade or two behind her peers. She's five grades behind now - and the gap only widens.

"Teaching her is a challenge," said Culotta, who has examined Amanda several times over the years, "but she certainly has the cognitive or mental capability to learn - that's quite clear."

Hetmanski went to a judge to get her child out of Baltimore County's hands, requesting that Amanda be sent to a private school for disabled children at the county's expense. The first time she went, a year ago, the judge ruled in the schools' favor, saying Hetmanski should give them another chance.

The second time, though, she won - partly because of the absence of any academic progress, partly because Amanda was so traumatized by being teased about her poor reading that she had threatened to kill herself.

The judge ordered her placed in a private special education school - a move that will cost the county much more than it spends to educate students in its own buildings.

"This is a student the system has absolutely failed," said Hetmanski's attorney, Roger J. Sullivan. "There aren't too many cases I get too worked up over. I thought it was horrific."

The school system can appeal Shock's decision, though attorneys would not say whether they will. No one with the school system would discuss the case in detail, citing privacy concerns, though its side is offered in court documents provided by Hetmanski.

"Sometimes, parents and school systems don't always agree on what is appropriate," is all Lisa Y. Johnson, compliance coordinator for the school system, would say.

For Hetmanski - who went from Sparrows Point High School to a job sorting rags in a factory and later worked as a nursing assistant, there is no question about what is appropriate.

She wants to spare her daughter the humiliations she herself endured - like the time she took a placement test for community college and found it so hard she never went back for her score. Or the time, last year, she wanted computer training but was told she'd have to learn to read first.

Nothing about Amanda's tale is simple. She has been out of formal school since that day last January when she threatened to commit suicide and a doctor insisted she not return. She has been schooled at home - 6 1/2 hours a week, basically one full school day - by a teacher paid by the county.

Her mother, though, set out to prove false what she calls Baltimore County's contention that Amanda can't learn.

"I figured, if this kid couldn't do anything, I would give up," she said.

She enrolled her daughter in Sylvan Learning Center in Bel Air. Amanda also goes once a week to the Scottish Rite Childhood Language Center in Baltimore for tutoring with a speech pathologist. Mother and daughter take literacy courses at Towson University on Thursday nights.

Amanda is almost ready to read at a second-grade level, Nancy Rini, who runs the Sylvan center in Bel Air, told Hetmanski on a recent visit. Amanda is working on sight words, punctuation, adding an s to make words plural, very basic comprehension.

In school, she'd be in the seventh grade - in the eighth grade, if she hadn't repeated fifth grade.

"It seems like she's beginning to enjoy reading," Rini said. "We're just encouraging her to keep up the good work."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.