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Reducing the stigma: One in five ND students with learning disabilities drops out of high school

Jamie Krebs (left), LaDawn Weidner (center) and Darlene Henning all serve as special education specialists at Dickinson High School. Photo by Ellie Potter/The Dickinson Press

One in five North Dakota students with a learning disability drops out of school, according to a recent report released by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

In the 2015-16 school year, more than 4,200 children were identified as having specific learning disabilities in the state, according to the report, State of Learning Disabilities, which has been published three previous times in 2009, 2011 and 2014. A little more than 35 percent of those students were identified as having specific learning disabilities (SLD) — such as difficulty reading or learning math skills.

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are classified in the Other Health Impairments (OHI) category, which accounts for more than 15 percent of these students. OHI and SLD prevalence among students receiving special education in the state were consistent with the national rates for the 2015-16 school year. There are 13 classifications.

A majority of these students, 84 percent, spend most of their days in a general education classroom, the study shows. Students with disabilities are also more than twice as likely to be suspended as children without disabilities across the nation, and 47 percent of these suspensions involve special education students with SLD or OHI.

At Dickinson High School, each student with a learning disability usually has some sort of accommodations in the general education classroom, said Darlene Henning, a teacher of the visually impaired at DHS. This can include allowing extra time on assignments or tests, eliminating choices on assignments and having a reader for tests and quizzes. Every child and every learning disability is different, so they all have a tailored individual educational plan (IEP) to help them, she said.

Henning said a teacher explained it to her at one point by thinking of students with learning disabilities like a lamp with a little short in it. Every now and then the light flickers or goes out and burns bright at other times.

"A learning disability can be pretty deceptive because you come across as a very average student but your reading skills are very low and your math skills are very high or vice versa," Henning said. "So it's not like being a visually impaired student that walks around with a cane or being a hearing impaired student with a hearing aid — it's very invisible."

DHS has about 60 general education teachers, 11 paraprofessionals who assist the students in the classroom and eight special education specialists, including Henning, Jamie Krebs and LaDawn Weidner. The latter two specialize in learning disabilities.

Weidner said teachers need to be flexible, noting that not every student is a "cookie cutter." Parents know their children best and should advocate on their behalf if they feel their child may need additional help in the classroom.

If a student is suspected of having a learning disability, they go through standardized testing to determine if they meet SLD qualifications. There is a lot of paperwork involved in order to make sure the student meets state SLD requirements to receive the extra help — a process that can take at least 60 days, Henning said. The special education teachers also meet with the student, parents and general education teachers to formulate an IEP.

Students with ADHD will probably sit in the front of the room, may have a copy of the notes if their teacher is presenting a PowerPoint and may have someone write down their assignments, Henning said. The general education teacher and special education teachers work together to coordinate helping the student in that particular class period before the entire process starts over in the next.

There are about 110 students with IEPs at DHS.

"I think watching them get that light bulb moment, succeed, and that gratitude they get, that gratifying feeling like, 'Oh, now I get it,'" Krebs said. "Just seeing that in them is more gratifying I think than them getting great grades."

Knowledge is power

Henning has worked at DHS for about 10 years and has worked for the district since 1984. In that time, she has seen many students drop out of school who have different special needs. And each time she feels physically ill afterward.

"The ones that have left have been the ADHD kids," she said. "Most often, it's hard for them to conform to our academic system because of the way they are. So they're very successful once they are not in this environment, but this is a very tough environment for them to be in."

These students may turn to a more specialized school or join the workforce. Weidner, who has worked at DHS for four years, said she has not had any students drop out, and Krebs, who has worked at DHS for three years, said she has only had one transfer student drop out, though there were other factors beyond just the school environment contributing in that case.

But students with learning disabilities do voice their concerns of feeling stigmatized. Weidner said the biggest complaint she hears is that students do not want to look dumb in front of their peers. To deal with this concern, she spends her time in the classroom assisting all students rather than singling out individuals. She also tells SLD students to head straight to the school's resource room on test days so she can read the tests aloud, instead of causing a scene in the classroom that would draw attention to their learning disability.

Sheldon Horowitz, senior director at NCLD, said when students repeatedly struggle in school, they may stop feeling good about themselves and may no longer wish to raise their hand and participate. He added that these students are equally as intelligent as their peers, but may simply need additional help in some areas. He advised parents not to wait to find out if they have concerns about their child's learning ability.

"When it comes to learning and attention issues, knowledge is power, and knowing what they can know and should know about learning and attention issues, and knowing what their rights and responsibilities are or what the child's rights and responsibilities are under law, can really kick-start a conversation with schools that would get the help that they need," Horowitz said.

Reducing the stigma around learning disabilities or special education needs is also hugely important.

"There's no shame in having a learning disability," Horowitz said. "There's no shame in having ADHD. There is shame in suspecting and then not doing or saying anything about it."

For more information about students with learning and attention issues, visit understood.org. View the entire report at www.ncld.org/the-state-of-learning-disabilities-understanding-the-1-in-5.

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