It's important to fight for your children's right to a good education.
One day in Freshman English class in High School, the teacher asked my son to stand up and read. He started haltingly, then threw the book down and said, “I might as well kill myself. Nobody cares how I do in school.”
Here’s some necessary background to this parenting nightmare. My first degree is in Special Education, which at the time I received it, included those with learning disabilities. Eighteen years before my son was born, I worked with the few tools available to help children with dyslexia learn to read.
Fast forward, and a law maker in Texas decided he didn’t want his child with dyslexia in Special Education, so he sponsored a law which made them eligible for accommodations through the Americans With Disabilities Act, or 504, but not Special Education.
There’s one problem with that. There were no established ways to test for dyslexia in the school setting for years after the law and, more importantly, there were no specific remediations offered in the public schools, only accommodations, primarily more time for reading and testing.
If you’re someone with dyslexia, or have a child who’s dyslexic, you know more time is not enough help. In my son’s case, we had to fight to get even that.
I was the school counselor and 504 coordinator in my son’s elementary school. He hadn’t learned to read in kindergarten, but it takes most boys until age six to develop the full brain capacity be for reading, so I didn’t worry. I read to him every night, and he memorized enough of the books that he seemed to be reading. Except he wasn’t.
“I love my first grade teacher, Mom. She’s teaching me to read.”
Indeed, by the middle of first grade he was reading. Haltingly and slowly, but reading.
It would be another two years before I suspected dyslexia.
He is very bright and creative, but in third grade he began getting migraines regularly, and his stomach hurt often. I knew it was stress, but didn’t immediately connect it to learning stress.
In fourth grade, I gave him the Boder screening test for dyslexia. He scored as dyslexia remediated. Remediated doesn’t mean cured in this context. There is no cure for dyslexia. It means he had developed his own strategies to deal with his dyslexia. If that sounds hard to do and stressful, it is.
I left the school district to start a private practice at the time he began fifth grade in a Montessori school. Since we had his Boder screening scores, and that was the only available, valid screening for dyslexia in the district, I immediately submitted paperwork for him to be designated 504. They called a meeting, and in a room of people less familiar with learning disabilities than I am, I encountered the first blow back.
Since he is intelligent, and Montessori is self directed, they weren’t seeing the issues I was, or his former teachers had seen. They denied the designation, but allowed him to go to the Special Education room at intervals to work on a computer program called Lexia. He never realized it was a Special Education class room, and went a few times a week. While it was helpful, he needed more intensive time on it, and other accommodations he couldn’t get without the 504 designation.
He managed fifth and sixth grade, but when he moved onto seventh in a different school, where he could play basketball, learning was harder. But basketball was his dream, and Montessori didn’t have a team.
With more books, studies, and homework, he struggled again. I submitted the request for a 504 meeting. For the next two years I bugged the school to schedule a meeting, and they always had some excuse why they couldn’t. His grades dipped. At home, I rented the movies made from the books he was supposed to read, and we watched those together. I also began reading his text books to him, which is the only way he made it through Middle School.
By High School, he and I had a routine to get him through the subjects which now required much more reading. He started getting migraines again, and stomach aches. He was making mostly Cs. He struggled in basketball, too, but he persevered, and that’s another story.
Again we applied and waited for testing. They required a psychological screening, which a colleague generously provided for half the normal cost of $800.00. I called every connection I had ever had in the district administration, but to no avail. I found out later the district had no formal, diagnostic testing available for dyslexia, even though it’s a state and federal law that learning disabilities have to be tested for and accommodated.
I believe race was an issue.
My son is half-Black and I’m White. For the teachers who didn’t know me, my son was a Black kid making Cs and Bs. I truly believe systemic and ingrained racism is the reason teachers didn’t recognize his struggle.They thought a Black kid with those grades was doing fine.
I also believe this is true because, when teachers met me, their attitudes toward him changed. I’m sure part of this was due to my background in education, but racism played a part. The previous micro aggressions became obvious in retrospect. They were nicer to him in front of me, which sometimes translated into more help from them in the classroom.
The psychological testing also helped. It showed his I.Q. to be 120, far too high for him to be floundering so much in school. Teachers who, consciously or unconsciously, saw race first, didn’t look past his grades for the signs of a gifted and talented student.
Finally, he was tested. But I had to threaten to sue.
By sophomore year, I had shown the school his I.Q. and other tests from the private psychologist indicating a learning disability. Learning disabilities show up in language and/or math in students with normal to high I.Q.s and sub performance. There was still no movement to schedule a 504 meeting.
One of my good friends was high in the administration at this time. I shared the story over brunch. She told me to threaten to sue the district.
I was a former employee of the school district. I had connections to people who worked in administration. I had naively believed in the system. But the system had let my son down completely. I followed her advice.
Coincidentally, as I was hitting send on the email threatening to sue the district, they had finally hired an actual diagnostic 504 team. One of that team called me the next day after my lawsuit email was received. She told me they were a newly formed team, and would test my son the following week. His sophomore year in High School, six years after I first screened him for dyslexia.
I took him lunch on the day he was being tested. The person administering the tests took me aside and told me he was the most gifted and most dyslexic student she had ever tested.
She described how he told her he figured out new words.
“I look at the length and shape first. Then I check if there are double letters in the middle. And then I read the words around it, and make a guess.”
She explained that he ran the words through the part of the brain that recognizes shapes and patterns. Then he ran it through the part of the brain that stores memory, and then through the part that knows language and context. Then he finally learns the new word.
She said, “No wonder he gets so tired at school.”
Both from relief at someone finally seeing and affirming what he was going through trying to read, but also in sympathy for how much harder he has to work than everyone else just to do what many of us take for granted: read.
With additional time on tests and reading assignments, his grades went up. He was still working hard at reading, but he could do it closer to his pace.
Because he was finally designated 504 in his sophomore year, he was able to apply to get more time on the SAT and ACT for college entrance applications. When I called to set it up, I was told the SAT requires the Woodcock Johnson Achievement Test, so I had to arrange for the tester to come back and administer that.
After turning in all the documentation, he was given time and a half on the SAT. He scored high enough to make it into Southwestern University, the second top academically ranked University in Texas. Rice is first. It’s ranked twelfth in the U.S.
Four years later, he graduated with a 3.0 average, and had played four years of college basketball. The degree was my dream for him. Basketball was his dream for himself.
He might not have gotten to do either if he hadn’t cried out for help, and I hadn’t threatened to take the school district to court. One trait my son has in abundance, and serves him well in everything he does, is perseverance. Plus he has a bulldog Mom.