Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why We Are Not Reaching Twice Exceptional Students and Why We Must Do So!

Fact: We know that roughly 13% of all students in the US are classified as "special ed."  We also know that roughly 2 to 5% of the population are twice exceptional (Gifted and have a learning disability).  This means in a school of 1000 we are dealing with 20 to 50 kids.  Yet, not nearly that percent are classified as such or catered to.

I first encountered a twice exceptional student in my classes at Hillel Yeshiva High School when I was a junior.  I actually ended up writing my Columbia U admissions essay on him for grad school.  Morris (name changed) was a talented artist, an incredible writer, and a charismatic person.  However, he also tuned out during much of his classes. He was incredibly well dressed and the nephew of a famous fashion designer. His parents, like many in the community, owned a store in Midtown Manhattan's garment district.

For the first month and half of junior year, I thought he was actually sleeping in math.  In an effort to control our rather loud class, the math teacher had changed our seats.  Instead of sitting in front of Morris, I was now sitting behind him to the left.  Finally, I could see what he was actually doing during class.  Rather than sleeping, he was actually reading something under his desk.   A few days after my discovery, I worked up the courage (yeah I was pretty shy) to ask him what he was reading during lunch.  He explained it was a Linear Algebra textbook he had gotten at a yard sale.  I was shocked on two accounts-  A) We were only in Algebra II and B) He went to a yard sale?

I realized then that school wasn't reaching him.  In fact, school was failing him.  He was failing math, AP Art History, and  English. He actually dropped AP Art History altogether.  All three subjects he actually knew a lot about and should have been passing in his sleep.  He once confided in me (we had gotten closer over my junior year), that he hated tests, that he never had the time to finish anything he worked on, and that people treated him like he was stupid, so he stopped trying.  He had a near photographic memory, but he could not translate that into a solid grade on any multiple choice test.

I had other friends in high school who also had similar issues with tests.  I had a friend Gena (again name changed) who was one of the most socially intelligent students I ever met, but couldn't write a sentence without struggling to put her hand to the paper. She could draw quotes from the Bible applicable to any situation from memory.

I continued to noticed these issues among multiple students I worked with throughout my educational career in college, graduate school, and in practice.  There was a pattern to these students.  They were bright, had obvious learning disabilities, and were often labeled or given IEP's that focused on areas of weakness, but left out their strengths.  They were continuously shut out of upper level courses and many times failed out of high school altogether.

In my first student teaching experience back in 2003 while in grad school at TC in Gifted Ed, I was fortunate enough to get a placement at Bronx High School of Science. (Thanks then VP Henry Frisch!)  I was paired with a teacher, Mr. Greez, who had recently transferred into the school from the HS for Environmental Studies.  He was charismatic and dedicated.  (Rumor has it he left at the end of 2011 for Stuyvesant.)  He let me completely take over one US History Course for 5 months.  I was literally thrown in cold turkey, so to speak.  When I was there, I met some amazing students.

One of the students that really motivated me to be interested in the twice exceptional student was a student "Bill" (again name changed).  He was articulate, motivated, and passionate about history, politics, and economics.  We instantly made a connection.  "Bill" was labeled as "dyslexic" and having "ADD."  As a result, he was not placed in the honors classes.  His ability to score well on the entrance exam had helped him get into Bronx Science.  However, once there, his IEP followed him, haunted him, and prevented him from getting into top classes.  He was a slow reader.  Ok that is an understatement.  It took him about three times longer than average to read anything.  He wrote, but what came out on paper was not nearly as articulate as what he said in class.  He fidgeted, got up often, and took bathroom breaks once or twice during class.  He was having problems in science courses left and right.  He was struggling in math, a subject he actually knew well.  He was not doing his homework consistently.  We had parent teacher conferences.  I was lucky enough to attend.  I met with his mother.  She was amazing.  She understood her son totally.  She got his strengths, weaknesses, and potential.  She was the ideal parent to work with.

He was one of the few who actually had been classified as twice exceptional, but his needs were not being fully met.  As a result, his confidence had been torn apart and his performance in school suffered.  I worked the entire semester to bring it back up.  I'd like to believe I had some success.  The key to this was treating him like the intelligent human he was and letting him realize that he could still succeed not despite his learning differences, but with them.  The school needed to adapt for him, not vice versa.  With the right accommodations, he could do anything.

I wanted him to embrace who he was and to set goals for himself.  I began to give him projects that were different from other students.  I had him focus on areas of interest within the curriculum.  I brought the issue of college and career planning into the equation early on.   He wanted to work on Wall Street.  We researched together universities with solid business schools that also provided excellent services.   I spoke with his mother quite a few times that semester to touch base on his progress.  His grade in history steadily improved as did his grade in other classes.

At the end of the year, I was privileged enough to be asked to write his college recommendation.  I got in touch with the regional admissions officer for U of Wisconsin, his top choice school.  I explained all about him, bragged, and talked. The admissions officer and I emailed back and forth for months. She told me what was missing in his application.  I'd go back to Bill and we'd make sure he did what it took to get that area fixed.  When time came for him to apply, she had earmarked his application.  He got in early.  That is actually not the success I was most proud of.  It was his incredible accomplishments in college that were exceptional.  He had learned to be confident on his own.  He had learned to take charge of asking for what accommodations he needed and not be shy about them.  He had learned to advocate for himself.  And, he was flourishing!  I still stay in touch with him and periodically he sends me a message on facebook.  He's now out in the workforce.   He's working in Manhattan for a pretty well respected Fortune 500 company.

What's my point besides bragging about an incredible kid?  That these students happen to be some of the most creative, intelligent students we will encounter.  The world will be a better place for helping them.  I always think, what happened to Morris?  He has faded into oblivion.  I have no idea.  Last I heard, he dropped out of community college and he was working as a cashier in a family business.  Is this terrible?  No.  Could he have been a leader in a company or his family's business?  An artist with pieces at MOMA?  Maybe, a math professor?  Who knows.  But, I do know, he would have been happier and more successful if school hadn't failed him.  He could have contributed more to his community and the world, if he was given a chance.

Minesota Council for Gifted and Talented