Bright, but Falls Asleep in Class

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 28, 2006 1:36 PM

Parents of children with learning disabilities all have complicated stories to tell, but Paula Lazor may have set some kind of record for twists and turns, victories and defeats. Her most frustrating moment came two years ago when she found the perfect program for her son John, a special education student, only to be told by her school district that he could not enroll because he was a special education student.

From time to time, I use this column to tell stories of individual special education families because that is the best way to cut through the confusion and bewilderment associated with learning disabilities. Just reciting all the inexplicable legalities is not enough. The rules are too hard to comprehend and a huge bore. But a single family's story can shed light on what actually goes on, and why.

In my Feb. 14 column I told the depressing tale of the Henck family. Their son has a disability that made him a bully magnet, but his school did not do much about it. A legal battle ensued that did not accomplish much, other than get the school's principal briefly indicted for perjury.

This time, as sort of an antidote, I have a hopeful special education story, what happened to Lazor when she hit the wall that such parents often encounter. She and her husband and son had to go through the usual torture of regulations not well understood, but in this case the public school system they dealt with, Arlington County, Va., proved not to be the villain, the usual role for school districts in these dramas, but one of the heroes. The way Arlington reacted to Lazor's distress, and to its own clumsy rules, should be a model for other school districts.

From kindergarten through sixth grade, Lazor said, her son John was an average student. Since first grade, he had been designated as learning disabled, with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) because his teacher had noticed his reading was below grade level. But he was also very bright. His own quick wits, plus small accommodations such as sitting near the teacher and letting John type his homework allowed him to keep up with his class.

It wasn't until seventh grade that the work load got too much for him. Eventually his parents learned that his disability was slow processing speed and audio-visual integration. "That meant," his mother said, "when he listened to you speak to him, his brain processed the information a split second after he heard it. Note taking, in particular, was a nightmare for him because he wasn't able to look at the teacher while he was taking the notes. Since he couldn't keep up with the teacher's pace of talking, he missed information."

The class assignments piled up at Swanson Middle School. John's backpack became more cluttered. "Papers were not in their folders," Lazor said. "He forgot assignments. Even when he completed his homework, he often would forget to hand them in on time, if at all."

"Then the night before the start of his second grading period, John has a meltdown," she said. "He stayed awake half the night crying uncontrollably. He said he could not go back to school. We were at a loss of what to do. We called the pediatrician. When John, again in tears, refused to go to school a second day, the doctor referred us to a child psychiatrist."

The family began the long bumpy succession of recovery followed by heartbreak followed by recovery followed by heartbreak that special education children and their parents know too well. The psychiatrist was able to treat John's school and social anxiety. His guidance counselor got his homework load reduced. But a few days into eighth grade he began falling asleep in class. A pediatric neurologist discovered the delayed auditory processing and suggested a more regular sleep schedule. This did not cure the upset stomachs he was having and the classroom sleeping resumed.

John reluctantly agreed to switch to math and English classes just for special education students, but that did not stop the nodding off in class. He transferred to Arlington's Interlude program -- small, nurturing classes that at first he liked, even as his mother teared up when she had to sign a new IEP that changed his special education designation from "other health impaired" to "emotionally disturbed."

The sleeping problem persisted, but a summer internship at a talk-radio service thrilled John and he remained in good spirits when told he could transfer for ninth grade to the New School of Northern Virginia, a tiny private school that has had success with bright children who have learning disabilities. A severe ear ailment and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks delayed John's start at the new school. He did well for a while, but began falling asleep.

The New School's headmaster, John Potter, suggested John be tested in the sleep laboratory at Children's Hospital. The specialists found he had an abnormal sleep pattern, with very little rapid eye movement (REM) during the night. They said he was sleep deprived and diagnosed him with narcolepsy, a neurological disorder caused by the absence of neurotransmitters in the hypothalamus region of the brain. He began taking a drug, Provigil, for that condition, but the sleeping in class eventually resumed. He had to leave the New School and go to Arlington's Washington-Lee High School. He was placed in the Interlude program there, but the high school version did not seem to him nearly as friendly and nurturing as the middle school program had been.

As 10th grade was about to begin, Lazor followed the advice of friends and had a private-education diagnostician test John. That consultant suggested he go back to the New School. Lazor and her husband agreed. Also, hoping to share what they had learned, they used the three-minutes-per-person allotted for public comment at the start of each Arlington school board meeting to recommend the county look into the possibility that other children might be affected by narcolepsy.

The first year of John's return to the New School went smoothly. His second year, however, did not work out so well, in part because of his choice of friends, a problem familiar even to parents who don't have to deal with learning disabilities. In looking for something better, Lazor and her husband joined other parents in speaking out at an Arlington school board meeting about the need for a program for gifted children with learning disabilities. One of the school board members, Libby Garvey, asked that Alvin Crawley, the assistant superintendent for student services, look into it.

Lazor and her husband also discovered a program at Arlington's Career Center. John was interested in its industrial arts courses, ranging from metal fabrication and welding to auto technology, because he wanted to go to a tech school instead of college. Here the Arlington school staff stumbled. They informed Lazor that John could not be accepted into the program because it "did not accept students with IEPs."

John saw no alternative but to drop out of high school and earn his General Equivalency Diploma instead. In the weird way that school rules often work, it was this decision that allowed him to take the courses at the Career Center that he had been denied when he was still a registered student. Under Arlington's Individualized Student Alternative Education Program, he could prepare for the GED in special county classes. These included, he learned, the Career Center vocational courses he was eager to try, as long as they had openings. "John did so well in his auto tech class that his instructor, Mike McGhee, moved him up to Auto Tech II the second half of the year," Lazor said.

Lazor and her husband wondered: Why didn't they know about this choice long before? Since they were seasoned veterans of the three-minutes-per-person public comment part of Arlington School Board meetings, they showed up again to suggest that school counselors offer the GED/ISAEP to more kids like John, and put the program on the school district's Web site. She said they knew it sounded as if they were recommending the school system encourage kids to drop out -- some critics of the No Child Left Behind law had accused other districts of doing just that to raise their state test passing rates. "But we felt it was important for students and their parents to at least know the program was out there," Lazor said.

They also hired a lawyer who sent a letter to Garvey, then the school board chair, saying the district was in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act for refusing to admit students with IEPs into the Career Center program. When lawyers get involved, as happened in the Henck case, relations often turn ugly, but not this time. Arlington School Superintendent Robert G. Smith thanked them for the letter and said plans were underway to fix the problem.

John is now 19. He is enrolled at Universal Technical Institute, an auto tech school, in Exton, Penn. "The school is a perfect fit," Lazor said. "He studies one course at a time, six hours a day, and five days a week. Each session lasts three weeks. Students spend part of the time in the classroom and part of the time doing lab work, where they learn by doing. John is on the honor roll at UTI. To date, he hasn't missed a day of school."

Last fall, Lazor called the Career Center and confirmed that Smith had followed through with his promise to let students with IEPs into the program. She and the center director, Jerry Caputo, discussed their shared belief that if programs like that were open to ninth-graders, students like John might be more likely to stay in school. She said she is also happy that the district set up a program for gifted students with learning disabilities at Wakefield High School.

This is a very long story to make a simple point, but I wanted to provide as much detail as I had in the Henck case, where the school district took a very different attitude toward the parents' complaints.

I have kept a close eye on Arlington County since I was assigned to cover its schools in 1997. It has been blessed with a smart school board that has been wise in its choice of superintendents. It also benefits from an old political tradition that prefers leaders who keep an open mind when parents complain.

It is, of course, impossible to satisfy everyone, but staying in touch with families in trouble and not ruling out options without some thought, seems to me the best way to handle the unique difficulties of special education, and find the right solutions for students like John.

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