Friday, January 29, 2010

Reading Fluency

Our colleagues at the nonprofit Center for Learning Differences just sent out their Winter newsletter, which features an article by Yellin Center Learning Specialist Valarie Algee, M.Ed. on Reading Fluency.

Mrs. Algee shares tips from  her extensive experience as a reading resource teacher, a literacy coach, and a writing instructor to explain how fluency is the link between decoding and comprehension and how parents can help their child become more fluent readers.

While we are mentioning the Center for Learning Differences, we think educators will find their website section with resources for teachers to be full of helpful books and websites to help teach children with learning difficulties.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Educating Parents

Whether you are just beginning the process of seeking services for your child who learns differently, or whether you are an old hand, with drawers full of files, reports, and IEPs, you may find that you wished you knew more about how to advocate for your child. There are a number of resources that provide programs aimed at helping parents understand the laws that apply to their children and to advocate for their childrens' educational needs.

The Technical Assistance ALLIANCE for Parent Centers is by the funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). It includes state-by-state listings of Parent Training and Information Centers . To give you an idea of some of the resources these Centers provide, take a look at the offerings from two New York City organizations we have mentioned before -- Advocates for Children (which will offer their workshops to schools and community groups) and Resources for Children with Special Needs (which has scheduled programs on different topics throughout New York City). There is no charge for these programs.

Other parent training programs are available, for a fee, through private companies. These include Wrightslaw, which is a resource we have mentioned before for helpful information on special education and related issues. The more you know, the better you will be prepared to deal with issues surrounding your child's education.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Financial Aid Resources

It's the season when high school seniors have completed their college applications and (except for those who have their next few years set via early acceptance) are anxiously awaiting for word from their chosen schools. For many students, the thick envelope with enrollment forms is not going to be enough; they will also need substantial financial aid to pay their way through their college education.

For any student even considering applying for financial aid, the first stop after submitting your applications for admission should be the website of FAFSA - the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Since FAFSA forms can be submitted any time after January 1st, you should waste no time in getting moving on your financial aid application. Families should be aware that the form requests information that may not be fully available to you -- or fully calculated -- until you prepare your 2009 tax returns, for submission by April, 2010. Try to pull your financial information together as soon as possible. Even when parents will not be paying for college, students will generally need to include information on their parents' income and assets.

For students with learning differences, there is another important stop on the web. The Heath Resource Center at George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development, in Washington, D.C. is a rich source of information for students with disabilities moving from high school to college. Their work extends to all kinds of disabilities, not just learning difficulties, but their depth of information on transition, financial aid, and other issues makes them a valuable resource for all students. They explain all different kinds of financial aid and include lists of scholarship resources. It's definitely worth a visit.

Friday, January 22, 2010

National Handwriting Day

Tomorrow, January 23, 2010, is National Handwriting Day. While the "holiday" may have been created in the 1970's by the writing-instrument manufacturing community, National Handwriting Day remains a great opportunity to remind students and parents about the importance and value of strengthening penmanship skills.

According to the American Federation of Teachers“students’ sentence-writing skills, the amount they write, and the quality of their writing all improve along with their handwriting.”

Here are a few links to interesting Handwriting Day activity ideas:
Happy National Handwriting Day!

(Photo credit: Caitlinator via Flickr) 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Have You Met ERIC?

Parents, educators, and clinicians are all aware that the world of education is in a state of enormous experimention and change. New technologies, new kinds of schools (think charter schools, for example) and new understandings of how the brain develops and works are all areas where scientists, educators, and researchers have been working and writing about their innovations and findings.

Some of these innovations and findings are well publicized. Others appear in niche journals or even less accessible forms such as papers published by universities. Finding the latest and best information is not always an easy task, even with the amazing tools available on the internet.

This is where ERIC can help. ERIC stands for Education Resources Information Center. It is sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) of the U.S. Department of Education. ERIC contains innumerable articles, reports, and journals relating to education and educational practices. Most articles are available for immediate download in pdf format. For those that are not available in that format, the site gives information as to where to get the full article. For those who are interested in reading about what is going on in the world of education, ERIC is a valuable resource.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Wheels on the Bus....

A recent conversation about the threatened budget cuts that would eliminate free transit passes for New York City school children this coming spring reminded us about the broader issue of student transportation. Whether New York City gets its fiscal act together to continue the long standing practice of providing school children with Metrocards that allow students to travel between home and school, or whether parents will be hit with the substantial expense of paying for their childrens' rides, remains unresolved at the present.

But another transportation issue comes up from time to time with the families we see. Students who learn differently sometimes benefit from attending a private school with specfic supports for their learning issues. Whether students are placed in a private school by their district, which has determined that the public school system cannot provide an appropriate education, or whether the student has been enrolled by his parents, who are seeking a better educational setting than they believe the public school can provide, the rules for transportation are the same. If a student needs transportation to access the private school, it should be provided as a "related service" under the IDEA (The Individuals with Disabilties Education Act). In New York State outside of city districts, schools are generally not required to provide transportation for a regular nonpublic school  that is more than 15 miles from a student's residence. For students with disabilities, transportation is generally provided for attendence at private schools within 50 miles of a student's residence. Families seeking transportation to private schools are required to give notice by April 1st of the year preceding the one in which transport will be required.

Even parents who unilaterally place their children in private, special education settings which they intend to pay for out of their own pocket may want to consider obtaining an IEP under the IDEA that provides for transportation services. It can be a real benefit to families to have the public school district provide this expensive and important service. And remember, for students in private schools it is the district where the school is located, rather than the district where the student resides, which is the district responsible for developing the IEP.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Accommodation Terminology

There are a number of terms used by schools, colleges, and organizations such as the College Board for the steps they take to make classes, tests, and other aspects of education accessible to students with disabilities. We've written before about the right to accommodations in the classroom and other settings, but it should be noted that there is a difference between the common usage and the technical language of the applicable laws.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) doesn't specifically define the terms accommodations or modifications. The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which are the basis for most services provided to students after high school refer to academic adjustments and modifications, auxiliary aids and services [34 CFR 104.44] to describe those things that are generally called accommodations. These would be those things that enable individuals with disabilities to access something – a test, an assignment, a lecture – as effectively as they would have if they did not have a disability. Sometimes this is referred to as “leveling the playing field”. It does NOT change the work or the test; it just makes it accessible. Additional time for exams, a large print book, or someone to take notes for a student would all be examples of this.

The common use of modifications refers to a change in the material being taught or tested to make it easier for the individual with a disability to comprehend or master. This would happen, for example, when individuals with cognitive disabilities are taught different materials than their classmates. This would be a modification to the curriculum.

It is important to keep in mind that students in elementary and high school are entitled to a public education whether or not they are able to keep up with the standard curriculum. For some of these students it may be necessary to modify classroom material or tests to enable them to learn at a level they can comprehend. It is not unusual to see modifications of the curriculum for elementary or secondary students with complex learning difficulties.

However, once a student graduates from high school (or reaches age 21 if he or she hasn't graduated with a regular diploma) the right to a public education comes to an end. Colleges and other post-secondary programs are not required to make changes to the course work or tests if students cannot manage the standard curriculum. If you cannot do the work, you will not be able to continue at the school or program.

What is required in college and post secondary programs is that the student be provided with access to the materials being taught and tested and, in fact, to all the campus facilities.

There is a good explanation of these terms and how they work in academic settings in a publication by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, called Transition of Students with Disabilities to Postsecondary Education. We think you'll find it helpful.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

NYC High Schools - Thoughts on Selecting a School

Our guest blogger today is our favorite student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Matt Yellin.

As a graduate student preparing to become a high school history teacher, I spent the past week visiting different high schools around New York City, focusing on those that I had been told were particularly successful at educating low-income students. I entered the exercise with two goals: as a student of education, I wanted to understand a little better what makes a school function well, especially when that school is educating students who all too often have been neglected or poorly served by our school system; and I wanted to gain a better understanding of where I might want to teach in the coming year.

I saw many different types of schools, and even found huge variations within individual schools. While all the schools I saw deserve to be called “good” by some standard, they all met very different definitions of good schooling. Some schools appeared very focused on discipline, control, and raising test scores. Certainly, these schools often appear statistically to be most impressive, at least in terms of scores on state-wide tests. Other schools were much more "laid back".Students called teachers by their first names, tests were rarely given or prepared for, and students picked their own topics of study. In both types of schools, real learning was going on and students were finding success—a far cry from the stereotypes of schools in struggling neighborhoods.

Seeing these “successful” schools, though, forces someone who cares about education to really confront what it is that they value. Do we owe students the chance to do well on their standardized tests? Perhaps, although some would say this stress on achievement misses the real point, something one of my education professors calls attainment (SAT scores, recommendations- i.e. a successful college application rather than simply meeting the minimum diploma standards). Conversely, do we not do better by our students by respecting them, putting them in charge of their own learning, and giving them chances to think critically? Again, though, we cannot value this without compromising something- some would argue, discipline and test preparation.

While I came to this endeavor as a teacher trying to figure out, philosophically, what type of educational goals I want to help students pursue, for parents participating in the complex system of applying to high school in New York the choices force you do weigh the same values, though schools sometimes try to gloss over them. Looking at a school, you need to first figure out what you want for your child: order and safety, graduation, college acceptance, an open mind, a diverse peer group, and a positive social environment are all great reasons to go to a school, but being clear about which ones you hold most dear will make the school choice process far more successful for you and your student.

Friday, January 8, 2010


Alexander Russo writes in his excellent blog for education administrators, Scholastic's This Week In Education, about Atul Gawande, a Harvard Medical School surgeon and New Yorker magazine contributor, and his new and very interesting book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.  In the book, Gawande presents an argument for the effectiveness of the use of simple checklists in surgery, medicine and elsewhere in life, in order to mitigate the human predisposition to the occasional error.  Russo asks us to consider why checklists have not yet been widely adopted as a best practice in education, from a teaching and administrative perspective, which is a good question.

This got us thinking about how important the regular use of checklists can be to help all students, and especially those who struggle with organization, attention, and materials management, among other types of difficulties.

Checklists can be extremely effective in helping students prepare for tests, book reports, and class projects. They can also be helpful in driving students to adopt a stepwise approach to the completion of complex tasks, which we know to be an effective strategy for success.

The next time you are helping a student get organized or prepare for an exam -- or even just the next time you ask if homework is done or when a book report is due -- consider helping them devise simple checklists to ensure everything gets done right.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Alphabet Soup

It would be great if parents could just say a few magic words and suddenly their child's school would provide whatever is needed to help their child learn. Clearly, this doesn't happen in the real world, but sometimes knowing the right vocabulary can facilitate communication with school personnel and make it clear that a parent is knowledgable about his or her child's educational rights. When we speak to parents whose children need supportive services from their public schools, we try to equip them with some of the complicated vocabulary of the special education world. It's certainly not magic, but it can help.

For example, an IEE is an independent educational evaluation, like those we provide here at the Yellin Center. Parents have the right to seek an IEE when they disagree with the evaluation provided by their public school system or if the public school refuses to evaluate a child even when the parent requests such an evaluation.

LRE stands for least restrictive environment, the right of every child under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) to be educated in a setting as close to a regular classroom in a regular school as would be appropriate for that student. So, when a students's IEP (Individual Education Program) provides that a student will be educated in a self-contained class, the IEP must explain that a regular classroom was considered for this student, but rejected. Similar requirements exist for all settings, up to and including a specialized school.

FERPA is a term that parents sometimes hear tossed about at meetings. It stands for Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and governs how educational records are to be handled to assure the privacy of the information they contain. Sometimes schools take this law too far and make it difficult for individual teachers to access a student's IEP because it is locked away in an office and not accessible to teachers.

Perhaps the most important acronym for children who struggle with learning is FAPE -- which stands for Free Appropriate Public (as in publicly funded) Education. This is what every child who is eligible for services under the IDEA is supposed to receive. It doesn't promise an ideal education which is, of course, what every parents wants for their child. But it does require consideration of a child's educational and other needs and should provide ways for each child to make adequate progress.

There are lots of other terms that make up the world of educational services for students in public schools. We'll share some others in future blogs.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Thinking About Summer Camps

Whether you spent the New Year's weekend sitting in front of a cozy fire, lying on a beach on a tropical island, or sitting out in the cold to watch your favorite football team finish up the regular season (Go Jets!), summer seems a long way off.

Still, if you are thinking about summer camp for your child, this is prime season for considering what kind of camp might be right for your child and exploring your camp options. For most children and young teens, even those who struggle in school, a regular camp setting is a great place for them to set aside the cares of the school year and to develop skills and affinities. Whether your child will do best at a day camp, at a short term sleep away camp with a program that lasts for a week or two, or at a summer-long sleep away program is a very individual decision. You need to consider your child's age, maturity, and ability to get along with others. Sending a child to an eight or nine week sleep away program that he is not ready to manage can make both the child and parents miserable. Trying to leave the camp on visiting day with a child latched to your leg screaming, "Don't leave me here!" can put a knot into any parental stomach. When in doubt, try a short term sleep away program or a day program with a "bonus" sleep away week at the end.

Children who need special support because of serious learning, attention, behavior, or medical issues can also do well at camp, so long as the program is equipped to handle their needs. Resources for Children with Special Needs is holding their annual Camp Fair on January 30th in New York City. Another source for information about summer camps for children with special learning and attention needs is the website of our friends at The Center for Learning Differences.

The American Camp Association sets standards for camps and has a website feature that allows parents to search for regular and specialized camps of all kinds.

One concern of many families is the expense of many camps. It's true that some private camps can cost thousands of dollars a session, way beyond the means of many families. But there are camps associated with organizations such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, religious groups, and public schools, that can provide meaningful experiences at reasonable costs. Start by asking around to see what options are available in your community.

Thinking ahead can help assure a postive summer experience for your child -- and may help you think warm thoughts in the depths of January's weather!