Md. mother of twins: School ignores special ed expertise

June 16, 2013

Stacie Brockman is the Prince George’s County mother of lively twin 9-year-old boys. Her sons were born two months premature. She has done everything possible to deal with the disabilities that often impede the progress of such children.

She took them to the developmental pediatricians at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, one of the top U.S. providers of care for children with learning disabilities. They gave the boys many tests. They diagnosed mixed expressive-­receptive language disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dysgraphia (a writing disability) and dyslexia (a reading disability).

The doctors told Brockman that her sons need to be in small classes with research-based reading instruction and intensive math and language remediation. As the law requires, administrators at Potomac Landing Elementary School set up an individualized education program (IEP) team, which meets with Brockman.

These meetings have not gone well, Brockman said. Learning disability issues appear to be one of the greatest sources of friction between parents and schools. Brockman’s account reveals how clumsy educators can be in communicating to parents what they are doing with their children, and why.

Both boys have IEPs, Brockman said in an e-mail, but the team leader dismissed some Kennedy Krieger assessments, “saying that all of KKI’s reports say the kids are dysgraphic and dyslexic, thus suggesting that the reports have little or no validity.”

“Although the state assessments given to the boys throughout the year show that they remain below grade level in reading and math, the IEP team feels they are making progress based on their observation of my sons in the classroom,” Brockman said. “They say this even as they inform me one son has dropped even lower since the beginning of the year and is now ‘at-risk.’ ”

“Yet when I received their third-quarter report cards, the boys are doing fine — they received all passing grades! I was amazed, and disappointed because I know my sons aren’t prepared. The school is moving them forward to the fourth grade, although my children are unable to add or subtract three-digit numbers, let alone know how to multiply and divide. I work with them daily but they are unable to comprehend more than two paragraphs of reading.”

“How are they to be successful in fourth grade when the teachers refuse to even admit that a learning problem exists?” she asked.

It is a good question. Prince George’s deputy superintendent of academics, A. Duane Arbogast, said he could not comment on specifics because of privacy rules, but he emphasized that county educators are supposed to take public and private assessments into consideration, including information from Kennedy Krieger. Learning disabilities are complex, Arbogast said, and teams must weigh all available sources of information.

There’s no excuse for telling a mother that some of the nation’s leading diagnosticians of learning disabilities don’t know what they are talking about. If teachers think the Brockman twins have made enough progress to be promoted to fourth grade, that’s useful information. But it seems the school could have done a better job of explaining how that, and the cheery report card, fit with one twin dropping to at-risk status. Arbogast agreed that IEP meetings require “very careful communications and relationship building.”

The mixed messages have left Brockman thinking that school officials are unable or unwilling to have a candid conversation about her sons. That’s not good. They should create a new IEP team led by someone who knows how to talk clearly and kindly to parents so they can be part of the team, too.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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