Trouble with learning: Students with disabilities require extra help
Faces of the Future
The Gazette offers a nine-month series about local education in the 21st century. Gazette reporter Frank Schultz will spend time in Amanda Werner's fifth-grade classroom at Janesville's Adams Elementary School throughout the school year and write about the challenges and changes of a modern classroom.
Click here to read earlier installments in the Faces of the Future series.
Teacher Amanda Werner provided these updates on the progress of her 21 students since last month's report:
Rewards—I handed out about 500 reward tickets to students who made positive behavior choices or academic connections to everyday life. For example, a ticket is awarded when a student uses a vocabulary word in everyday conversation or connects concepts from different subjects such as probability and the election.
All students have earned this reward and are eligible to have their names drawn for a prize-box trinket at the end of each week.
Tallies—These marks for negative behavior remained low for the second month in a row, at 150. I am delighted that the class remains community-conscious. The most severe infractions involved tossing an eraser in the LMC (library), forgetting about homework and multiple reminders to stay on task. Only five students have had to stay indoors for lunch this month, one time each, as a result of earning three tallies in one day.
Discipline referrals—None. Referrals are reports of serious infractions that might involve loss of privileges, "re-teaching," parent contact, parental notification and sending the student to the office.
My class shared the PBIS title with Adam Spaeth's fourth-grade class. PBIS is the discipline program being adopted district wide. The initials stand for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.
Contacts with parents—All were positive and academically supportive. The 10 phone calls, emails, or notes to families were meant to praise student performance or to work together to support students' learning needs.
Reading—We focused on expository text and the comprehension strategy of noticing all nonfiction text features, such as sidebars, diagrams, photographs and captions. A clever student combined the unit vocabulary word "discriminate" with this concept. He coined the class expression, "Don't discriminate against the text features. They all deserve equal treatment." He was given a reward ticket for the inventive connection. We began a new comprehension strategy, which involves asking questions before, during and after reading.
Language—In combining writing, grammar and technology, we selected one of our several personal-narrative drafts to revise, edit and publish. Students learned how to focus their personal stories around a theme or lesson. They asked themselves, "What do I want the reader to know about me after reading this story?"
We practiced using reference resources to enhance adjectives and verbs to convey specific meaning. For example, we revised the sentence, "I walked into the room and said, 'Hello'." to "I shuffled into the room and mumbled, 'Hello.'"
Students rewrote their beginnings to capture the reader's attention and endings to leave the reader satisfied. Publishing took place in the computer lab, exploring different word-processing features.
Math—We continued practicing adding, subtracting, and multiplying whole numbers and decimals. Story problems with these operations were practiced to deepen understanding. Metric and standard unit conversions also were investigated. While we won't begin full study units on the following subjects until later in the year, we brushed up on probability, geometric properties and algebraic equations during Response to Intervention, in preparation for state testing next month.
Social studies—Fostering civic-minded citizens has been a focus this month. The students have enjoyed expressing their opinions with one another while learning about the election process, including the presidential candidates and where they stand on important issues. These discussions naturally led us to learning about U.S. government structure, checks and balances and the roles of the branches. We also finished our geography unit, combining math and social studies to investigate scale.
Science—The focus continues to be on heat energy and the changes it causes in materials. Hands-on experiments are conducted to study these concepts.
Savannah Bennett’s family sits down with her each school night to help her do her homework. If Savannah doesn’t keep on top of things, she falls behind, said her father, Chuck Bennett.
JANESVILLE Savannah Bennett's family sits down with her each school night to help her do her homework.
If Savannah doesn't keep on top of things, she falls behind, said her father, Chuck Bennett.
That might sound like most children, but the fifth-grader has a special problem. She has a learning disability.
Savannah is among the approximately 13 percent of Janesville School District students with some kind of identified disability. Educating these students has taken on more urgency in recent years with the onset of new accountability systems that fault schools if they don't help all students learn.
In the old days, if tests scores were good or average, then few paid much attention to the fact that some groups—those with disabilities, the poor or minorities—were not doing so well.
The No Child Left Behind legislation changed that, and a state accountability system that was introduced last week is intended to put such failings into even sharper perspective.
The new state report cards, for example include a measure that shows whether a school is closing the gaps between groups that have historically performed poorly and their peers.
Adams School closed the gap for students with disabilities in reading over the past two years, but in math, students with disabilities fell behind slightly, the new state report card indicates.
Educators' challenge is to make sure all students improve—including those who have built-in difficulties, such as Savannah.
Just another kid
Savannah seems normal for her age. She is shy with strangers. She smiles easily and makes pouty lips if she's having a difficult time in class.
She doesn't disrupt class, and she's fortunate that teacher Amanda Werner sometimes has classroom help—aides and a volunteer, Savannah's grandmother, Nancy Hansen-Bennett.
The thing Savannah seems to love most is playing outdoors. She'd be on her school playground for hours if allowed, her father said.
Her enthusiasm was evident in a recent after-lunch kickball game. It's a game the kids in Werner's class take seriously, and Savannah positively glowed when her kick sent her to first base.
The federal government defines a learning disability as a psychological problem affecting a person's understanding or use of language. It can impair the ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do math.
Learning disabilities are not easy for an observer to see on the playground or in a classroom, but they plague more students than any other kind of disability in the Janesville School District.
Learning disabilities seem to run in families. Savannah is adopted, however, as is her older brother, who also has learning problems, their father said.
State and federal laws require that schools provide special help to all students with disabilities. The government provides funding, but the money never has covered the entire cost of special education. Local property taxes fill the gap.
A program called Response to Intervention has become a major tool that schools nationwide use to help students work through their disabilities, even though it's a program intended to improve all students' academic achievement. It's become so common that everyone—including the kids—call it RTI.
RTI focuses on finding students' specific academic weaknesses and teaching them until they understand, Adams Principal Sally Parks said. Tests are analyzed, question by question, child by child. Students then are divided into groups to target learning deficits in specific skills in math and English.
The tests might show that a particular group of students has trouble identifying an author's purpose in a section of text. Or students might not understand how liquid volumes are measured, for example. Students are taught, tested, and re-taught until they understand.
Ideally, no one slips through the cracks. The hope is that if the problem areas are corrected early, students won't have to be referred to special education later, Parks said.
Parks said it's too early to say whether the program is doing that, but state statistics show the proportion of special-education students at Adams and in the district has declined in the past 10 years.
For students who don't need the extra help, RTI lessons include extra activities so kids learn the material more deeply, officials said.
Mr. Gallon Man
Janesville School District officials would not discuss Savannah's disability despite her father's willingness to allow it. Officials did allow a Gazette reporter to observe Savannah in a math class where students received specialized instruction.
Savannah spends most of her time in a "regular" classroom at Adams Elementary School, although it's sometimes a classroom for lower-performing students.
The class is part of the school's RTI program. Students of all abilities attend classes in math RTI and reading RTI, in addition to their regular math and reading classes.
Savannah's math RTI class is a lower-performing group in which fifth-grade teacher Karen Biege teams up with special-education teacher Stacey Petter.
Petter spends her day going from class to class. She plans lessons and co-teaches with the regular teachers, lending her special training to help all students, not just those who have disabilities.
Petter is one of two special-education teachers doing this for grades 1-5 at Adams.
"You don't want kids missing any new instruction," giving the students little chance of catching up, Principal Parks said.
When a Gazette reporter visited Savannah's RTI math class, the lesson was about the number of cups in a pint, pints in a quart and quarts in a gallon.
Much of the lesson involved assembling Mr. Gallon Man from slips of paper and glue.
Each student was given variously sized paper pieces. A large piece of paper represented a gallon for a torso. Quarts made up the upper arms and thighs. Pints were calves and forearms. Cups were fingers and toes.
Petter and Biege circulated in the classroom, helping students assemble their gallon people.
"OK, lay it out. Put it where you think it should go," Petter encouraged Savannah, who puzzled over the papers. Savannah looked at the completed Gallon Man on the board and started.
"Good job, Savannah," Petter said a few minutes later.
Students gradually built their gallon people, gluing them onto a big sheet of paper.
Ask the kids who their math teacher is, and they'll say Mrs. Biege and Miss Petter, Petter said. They don't really know that Petter's specialty is disabilities, and kids don't often make distinctions about special-ed kids.
"In years past, that might have been the way, but now it's not that way at all," Petter said.
Petter and Biege quizzed the students individually, encouraging them to use their gallon people to help them answer—"How many quarts are there in a gallon? How many pints are there in a gallon? How many pints are there in a gallon?"
"Uh—eight!" Savannah said.
"Ya! Awesome!" Petter responded.
The lesson ended with a test on the material.
"No, no, no" one boy said as the teachers passed out the tests.
"You're going to do just fine," Petter assured the boy. "And next time you won't have Mr. Gallon Man to look at because you're going to have it up here," Petter said, pointing to her head.
After the test: "I want you guys to write 'Mr. Gallon Man' in your assignment notebooks," Petter told the class. "If you can explain it to your parents—or whoever you live with—explain cups and pints and quarts, and they can initial it, we'll give you a coupon on Monday."
Coupons are good for redeeming prizes.
Next door, Amanda Werner was teaching a group of fifth-graders how to identify the two-dimensional shapes that could be used to build three-dimensional prisms. Werner also threw in a mini-lesson on calculating probability.
Werner said later that the goal of RTI is that all students learn the basic fifth-grade curriculum, but it was clear her group was working on more difficult material.
"They'll probably get there later," Werner said of Savannah's group. "That's the beauty of RTI. Her class just needs more time to meet the fifth-grade goals."
The higher-level group, meanwhile, engages in enrichment activities to learn the material at a deeper level, Werner said.
Bennett and his late wife adopted two children. Savannah's older brother Kyle, now in high school, was tested and placed in special education in second grade, Bennett said.
So when Savannah showed signs in kindergarten, the Bennetts were on the case.
"She had a small speech impediment. She was not grasping the ideas as quickly as the other kids," Bennett said.
Savannah was placed in the Title 1 reading program in first grade. Title 1 is a federally funded program to help struggling children in low-income neighborhoods.
Savannah also acquired an IEP, the Individualized Education Plan that every special-education student must have, by law. The plan calls for her to get help in reading comprehension and math and sets annual goals, Bennett said.
The goals are met sometimes, sometimes not, Bennett said.
"Her writing skills have improved immensely."
Bennett figures his daughter always will have a learning disability, but he says she will learn to cope.
"It's not something you can cure or take away. You just learn new skills," he said.
"It's not a disease. They just learn a bit differently," Bennett said.
"Savannah is blessed because her family knew to ask the school for help, that's an advantage a lot of my families don't have," said Roberta Sample, an advocate for many years for students with disabilities and who formerly worked for the Janesville district.
"I don't find them to be terrible parents," Sample said of parents who don't have such resources. "I find them to be loving parents, but they can't nurture their kids in the area they need help in."
On a recent sunny afternoon after school, Savannah was doing her homework at the dining room table with her father.
Family members take turns being Savannah's helper. Sometimes it's her father, sometimes Bennett's fiancée, Ginger Smith, or Ginger's daughter Sadie Smith.
One assignment this day was to answer questions about an article Savannah had read in the newspaper.
Savannah wanted to write about a photograph that showed a skateboarder enjoying the weather.
Her father wanted her to write about something else.
"Who's this, Savannah? Come on, you've heard us talking about him."
"Paul Ryan," she said reluctantly.
"What's so special about Paul Ryan? You remember?"
"I am NOT a fan of Paul Ryan," she responded.
"That's correct, but he's a vice presidential candidate," her father said. "Do you know where he's from?"
"Milwaukee—no! He's from Janesville."
Savannah eventually won, however. She wrote about the skateboarder and the weather information that was attached to the photo.
Savannah took her time writing her answers on a worksheet.
"She's also a perfectionist," her father said.
Bennett asked a lot of questions to get Savannah to think about her work.
"She has a hard time concentrating," Bennett said as he found some coins to help his daughter practice adding pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.
Bennett checked Savannah's assignment notebook.
"No tallies today. Good job, Savannah. I'm proud of you."
Tallies are like demerits for poor behavior. Too many tallies, and a kid might have to stay indoors when everyone else is playing kickball.
Reading for 20 minutes also was an assignment that day. Savannah read a book of poems she had chosen. Ginger took her turn, giving Bennett a break. Only occasionally did Ginger have to help her sound out a word.
Savannah kept track of family members entering and leaving the room and shouted a warning when the family's puppy darted toward an open door.
"A lot of kids will work a half hour on homework after school," Bennett said. "Savannah sometimes needs an hour to an hour and a half because of distractions."
Savannah counted change, sometimes using her fingers. She tried to make a game of pulling a quarter out of Ginger's hand. Savannah giggled. Ginger was not amused.
'Not a stigma'
Bennett recalled his days at Adams Elementary School. He went through kindergarten twice.
"I had a different learning style. They didn't know what to call it back then," he said.
His parents had to fight to get him into special education, he said.
Bennett was placed in a special-ed class, where he stayed until eighth grade, when finally he started spending part of his time in regular classes, he said.
"I was an outcast. I was not part of the mainstream," he said. "I got called a retard. I got called stupid."
It's not something Savannah has experienced. Kids in her class seem to accept a wide variety of differences.
"It's a lot better. They're catching it a lot sooner. It's not a stigma anymore," Bennett said.
Ginger had a more difficult experience. Her children, who are older than Bennett's, also have learning disabilities.
"I had to fight tooth and nail" to get them the help they needed, Ginger said.
School officials refuse to discuss specific cases, saying they are bound by law not to reveal anyone's disability.
Parents often talk of struggles to get their children placed into special education.
"These are the children who tend not to get picked up early. Some are not identified until fourth or fifth grade," Sample said.
"Kids don't choose to fail. In the beginning, they really want to do well," Sample said. "But after a while, they realize they can't do it.
"Unless somebody works for them, they can get lost in the system. By sixth grade, they're lost," Sample said.
"But as long as you can keep them engaged," Sample said, "they're pretty sharp kids."