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Family of Disabled Student Says District Failed to Prepare Him for College

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Here's an interesting story out of Olathe, Kansas, about a family of an 18-year-old senior filing for due process because their son's IEP goals didn't include a goal of "a favorable ACT score that would facilitate his transition to a four-year college.” The student, Dustin Villareal, has a somewhat old website here. (The article says that he has attended Olathe schools since he was three; the website says he is home-schooled. Hmm.)

The district has responded that it cannot guarantee that any student will be able to pass a college-entrance exam. But I think that response misses the point. The story hints at the real issue here:

“All of my teachers either felt sorry for me (or felt I could not learn),” [Dustin] wrote in the e-mail. “They modified my curriculum so much that by the fifth grade, I could hardly read or do math.

“My parents and I knew I could learn with supports. Since fifth grade, (we) have been trying to close the huge gap between myself and my non-disabled peers. I have made major accomplishments but am still behind.”

If true, that's the problem -- not the fact that no school can, or should, be required to guarantee a certain ACT score for its students. And it goes right back to my earlier post that referred to Harvard professor Thomas Hehir and his suggestions for how to improve individualized education programs. He says that parents and teachers should think carefully before modifying the curriculum of a student, as opposed to offering accommodations that would allow access to the general curriculum.

Dustin has Apert Syndrome, which has some unique physical characteristics and may, but not always, include some intellectual disabilities as well. In this television news story, his parents suggest that his appearance may have led to unfair treatment.

If Dustin received a modified curriculum because he legitimately has cognitive disabilities, that's one thing. If, like he suggests, the assumption was that he required a lower level of academic rigor because of the physical features of his disability, that's another problem entirely. The ACT score seems like a side issue.

Based on the story, it sounds like the district has offered tutoring after earlier due-process hearings. Dustin would like to stay in school at least another year, to catch up with his peers. I'll be interested in seeing what the hearing officer decides.


Sympathy abounds for students with disabilities -- and stories like Dustin's simply serve to reinforce what we have known for years. As the Findings of IDEA state "...implementation of this title has been impeded by low expectations and an insufficient focus on applying replicable research on proven methods of teaching and learning for children with disabiities." The law goes on to state that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by: "having high expectations; ensuring access to the general curriculum ... in order to be prepared to lead productive and independent adult lives ..." The 2004 iteration of IDEA expanded its purpose to include "ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities."

Seems to me that what Dustin seeks for himself aligns pretty closely with what the lawmakers intended special education to accomplish. While attainment of specific scores on tests like the ACT or SAT aren't necessarily appropriate IEP goals, the expectation for special education to provide the same opportunity for Dustin as general education provides for his nondisabled peers in not only appropriate, it is a legal requirement.

I don't know how I feel about this story. I suppose I feel like there is some sort of disconnect here, and I don't feel like we are getting the whole story. Am I alone?

I'm sure you're not alone, Casey -- what makes you feel a disconnect?

I don't know--I didn't get any disconnect. What is described is pretty much what I have repeatedly experienced. A goal is something that you are working towards. It is not a guarantee--but I have had teachers and administrators shy away from (or refuse) to include goals that had any measureable dimensions because they have the misinformation--from somewhere--that a goal is something akin to the deliverable on a contract and they can be sued if the goal is not achieved. Now that flies in the face of the many unachieved goals that I have seeen fly by during my son's years in school (the ones still noted as NP by the end of the year--that are subsequently dropped as opposed to providing the foundation for the following year's IEP). I have experienced extreme confusion about the fact that the curriculum remains the curriculum (based on the school's curriculum and the state standards) and the goals should be statements of what needs to happen for the student to be able to access that curriculum (except, as Christina noted, in the case of students with cognitive disabilities--in which case a specialized curriculum is appropriate).

It seems to me as though achieving a "favorable" ACT score in order to achieve transition to college would be a very appropriate transition goal for a student with (or without) disabilities. There are specific objectives that would accompany this (signing up for the test, achieving improvement on practice tests, etc) as well as appropriate supports and services (help in applying for any needed accommodations, provision of accessible study materials, coaching).

The only reason that I can see for refusal to set this as a transition goal would be the district's belief that he was absolutely incapable of achieving such a goal--due to limits of his disability, which doesn't seem to be the case.

I think that it is still far to often the case that students with disabilities (particularly those who are also minority students or from low-income families) are provided with very different curriculum and that there is still a cadre of teachers--from both the regular and special education sides of the fence--who believe that the function of special education is to protect students with disabilities from the rest of the world and hold them aside in a separate space of limited expectations (and options).

There are a lot of red flags to me about the story. One is that the website said he is homeschooled, as of 2004...which seems strange. The other, and this could totally wrong, is that I don't think this kid wrote all of the emails and quotes atrributed to him. I am just going to throw out my impression, and you guys can be mad at me if you want...but to me, this seems like the parents possibly pushing an unrealistic agenda with their child. No student, whether in special education or not, is guaranteed a reasonable score on the ACT by a school. The school needs to prepare them as best as possible, but I have to feel like there is a broader reason why by 5th grade, this student could barely read. I suppose I would not be satisfactorily assured that kind of a result is due to the school dumbing down his curriculum. I suppose all I can say is, I need more info before I could condemn the actions of this school. That being said, I wish the best for this young man and his parents, and hope he has the happies and most fullfilling life possible.

That's fair. We don't know the situation with this particular young man, though I have to say that I don't find it particularly surprising that he, or any, student could get to 5th grade without being able to read -- even if that student has no cognitive impairment at all. Undiagnosed dyslexia, for example, could lead to the same result.

FWIW, here's another, newer story on the same case.



Thanks for providing the follow up. It appears that the student was home-schooled for one year and a student at a private school for one year. I was surprised that Adjunct Law Prof thought that the student was unlikely to prevail--primarily because I have never read goals as guarantees, and thought this to be consistent with the law.

Further--while the stated purpose of high school in general may not be preparation for college, transition planning as required by IDEA does require life preparation based on some sense of what the student/family see as life goals, or what comes after. I would suspect that something as vague as being a good citizen (as Adjunct Prof seems to be suggesting) would not pass muster (as an end goal of graduating high school is also not considered a transition goal). I would think that one might legitimately ask if non-disabled students were being routinely prepared (through counseling, assistance in signing up to take ACT/SAT, referral to test prep courses, college fairs, etc) for college in various ways, and whether the regular curriculum would be considered to be appropriate/adequate preparation for college.

Again--I don't find it to be at all unlikely that a student with disabilities was provided systematically with curriculum that differed considerably from that available to non-disabled students. That has been the prevailing mind-set for a very long time in this country, that students with disabilities simply cannot perform and ought not be expected to. The "resource room" has long been a place where expectations could be lowered and the pace slowed down--rather than a place where the intensity of support and instruction could be ramped up to ensure that students are kept on a plane with their peers.

I don't know if Dustin will make it to college--but I frankly don't see the harm in setting a goal to achieve an acceptable ACT score.

I teach in a middle school. My class is called "Learning Skills" and is designed to assist students who are identified as special ed students, w/ learning strategies. I am certified spec ed. Recently a student was dismissed from spec ed services "no longer SLD in Math" but remains in this class. I am not comfortable w/ this arrangement and believe he should be on a 504 to address his ADHD issues and failing grades. I was not his coordinator. The intervention specialist said "He is staying in this class until the end of the year because she said so", there was no team decision and no discussion during the dismissal meeting. I was not present but two who were said no discussion on continuing him in the class took place, the IS said it did, but there are no conference notes to back up her story.
Do I have a leg to stand on? Is it a compliance/legal issue to continue to serve this student in a 100% disabled (LD/ED/OHI)environment? He is missing out on having a REAL extracurricular class. I have been trying to get a sensable answer from admin. for a month. I can not accept one person's decision on this.
Could anyone direct me to a law / statuate/ mandate..... that can back this up? I believe it is not legal to continue to service him in this environment and have asked for a written statement to be placed in his files........stating who made this decision. Prior to dismissal he was fully included except for the period he was/is in Learning Skills.

My son has been in and out of the public school system. He currently has an IEP. As an excellent athlete he has several colleges interested in him, but when I checked the classes he has been assigned in high school I found they did not meet most college requirements. The high school has not approved him for a 3rd year science lab course. In addition, he was in Special Ed Spanish II but needs a 3rd year for college, however, there is no Special Ed Spanish III. He will need to go into the regular class which he has not been properly prepared. The school recommends that I have him take (and pay for) community college summer classes so he can "catch up." I feel that the school has failed to educate my child and properly prepare him for college.

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