The first clue Bonnie Beavers had of her daughter’s learning disability came in the second grade. The girl scored at the 99th percentile in math on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, but when her teacher divided the class into groups for math, she was not in the highest one.
Beavers showed the child’s test results to the teacher, who was unmoved. “I caught her counting on her fingers,” she said. Then she went completely over the top by insisting none of her students knew the groups were ranked by perceived ability.
“My daughter never again liked math or thought she was a good math student,” Beavers said.
The girl was later diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and executive function disorder (an inability to self-organize), as was her older brother. Like many bright children with such disabilities, they had to endure teachers suggesting they were lazy because they could not complete repetitive assignments in reasonable time.
Such children experience frustration, even in this region of great teachers and well-run schools. Too many educators here, according to numerous parent witnesses, share a stubborn blind spot about disabilities that can be mistaken for sloth or carelessness.
Beavers’s children attended the Montgomery County schools, which appear no worse by this measure than other local districts. A Montgomery schools spokesman said specialists are training teachers on the need for accommodations. Beavers briefly enrolled her daughter in a well-regarded private school to see if that would make a difference. She was again disappointed.
A startling part of Beavers’s story is that despite her children’s inability to memorize multiplication tables in the third grade, both were admitted to the Center for the Highly Gifted at Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary School in the fourth grade. “The screening is mostly concept-based,” Beavers said. “They loved being challenged, and it was the only time they felt socially comfortable at school.”
Still, some of the teachers didn’t understand that intelligence is not measured by how much homework you can do. “One night’s assignment for just one subject was to create dialogue for a Shakespeare character, soak stationery in tea and crumple it to look like parchment, and write the dialogue in ink — in calligraphy,” Beavers said. “Sheer torture for a learning-disabled student who works slowly and can barely print legibly with a pencil.”
After two years at Barnsley, her son wanted to go to a math-science magnet school, but failed to qualify. He finished only half the math questions in the allotted time, though all were correct.
He enrolled at Westland Middle School, where Beavers asked for a 504 Plan, part of a federal law that requires schools to give children with disabilities a boost. She presented his high test scores and the contrasting Bs and Cs he was getting because of late or missing work. She asked for extra time on tests and other accommodations. The head of the school’s education management team said, “I feel sorry for your son. You are clearly pressuring him to make As,” then walked out. A spokesman for the county schools would not comment on the situation citing privacy issues.
Beavers thought her daughter would do better at Holton-Arms, a private school for girls in Bethesda. Based on her test scores she was placed in the highest math group and given extra time on tests. But when Beavers asked the school to cut back on repetitive homework as long as each concept was covered, the response was: “We don’t offer that accommodation.” When I contacted the school, a spokesperson confirmed that the school does not have that accommodation.
If you wish to believe Beavers was gaming the system for her lazy kids, that’s your right. I have studied too many of these cases to accept that explanation. Why not make more of an effort to persuade teachers with personal views on this to try accommodation anyway, and see what happens?