Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Strategies for the Disappointed

As the final group of colleges provides students with the good -- or bad -- news about their applications, there are going to be many students who are closed out of their top choice schools. Some were rejected, others were accepted but not given sufficient financial aid to make four years even remotely affordable. Still other students are in the purgatory of the "waiting list."

Of course, many high school seniors have dealt with this issue much earlier in the process, by applying to schools with rolling admissions or by submitting one of several types of early decision/action applications. But the fact is that there are a large number of high school seniors who need to make decisions from a list of colleges that were not among their favored choices. If you are one of these graduating seniors, what should you do in the next few weeks before you need to send in your deposit?

First of all, if you have been put on the waiting list, you need to understand that this is a signal from that college that you definitely meet their standards, but that there are simply too many highly qualified students whom have applied and that they need time to see what their 'yield' will be to make sure they have the number of entering freshmen that they can handle in their classes and dorms. If you are still interested in the school(s) that have put you on their waiting list, by all means let them know. Then think about what meaningful new information you can provide them -- an award that you received after your application was completed, a rise in your grades, an internship that you held spring semester, etc. Let them know about these new items, but only if they are new; don't rehash old grades or accomplishments. And, once you have done all you can to burnish your application to your waiting list schools, put them out of your mind. You may hear from them in a few weeks, early in the summer, or not until the day before classes begin in the fall. But you need to stop wishful thinking and get on with planning your college life.

The next step is to re-evaluate those schools that have accepted you. Look at the practical issues, including the financial aid package you did -- or didn't -- receive. Are you being offered a place in a special program, such as an honors college? If at all possible, visit the school during the "accepted students weekend." Most schools have them and it is a time when the tables are turned and the school is out to convince you to attend. Don't worry if you haven't made up your mind. For every accepted student putting a school logo in the rear of his car window, there will be one like you who is weighing a number of possibilities for next fall. We know a number of students who have been rejected from their first choice schools only to find that their "safe school" has been a wonderful experience.

Once you have re-evaluated and visited the schools that have accepted you, it's time to accept one place and put in a deposit. If your dream school has placed you on the waiting list and comes through after this is done, you will lose your deposit, but that is a small price to pay if you are still determined to attend that school.

Most of all, whether you are excitedly looking forward to the fall, or still dealing with the disappointment of what may be your very first rejection, know that a disappointing outcome in the admissions process is not a reflection of your worth, your future, or how much you will enjoy and get out of attending a school which was not your first choice.

Photo used under Creative Commons from borman818

Monday, March 28, 2011

Teacher vs. Teacher

We recently had the chance to spend time with two excellent public school teachers. One is an experienced teacher in her fifties, who turned to teaching after raising her children and has been in her current school system for over 18 years. She is single and needs her income to live on. She is too young and a few years too short of retirement to think about leaving her job.

Another teacher is new to his field. He is well trained, and by all reports is doing a great job with his students. He is energetic, innovative, and deeply committed to his new profession. He views teaching as his calling, not simply as a job.

Both of these teachers are feeling the impact of the budget crisis that faces New York State and much of the country. Here in New York our new Governor and our legislative leaders have reached an unusually early agreement on a tentative budget -- unusually early only because it has regularly been late -- that calls for over $1.2 billion in education cuts (reduced from a proposed $1.5 billion proposed cuts). Complicating matters is the ongoing tug of war in New York City, between the teacher's union and the mayor, over the current seniority and tenure system that requires a "last hired, first fired" system for layoffs, regardless of merit. It's an issue that is arising in many school systems throughout the country.

Our two teachers face different issues in this current climate. The experienced teacher, whose salary has risen over the years to over $100,000, is being pressured to leave her job. She was transferred from one school to another last year and now has been told that she will be transferred again -- to a position that is not in line with her recent experience. "I feel badly for the students I will be dealing with," she says, "but I can't quit and I can't stop them from moving me from where I am most effective to where I will be less effective. This is making me physically ill from stress."

Our younger teacher is optimistic but concerned. He knows that his fate is out of his hands -- and out of the hands of the principal who would like him to stay on. He is trying not to think about the politics of it all, but does muse about the role of the teachers' union. "I belong to the union and pay dues," he says. "But they are working hard to make sure that I am the first to go if layoffs occur. I sort of understand it, but they are essentially supporting some of their members at the expense of others."  His grandmother, a former New York City school teacher who retired after 34 years in the system, reminds him of how she walked a picket line during the time of reknowned teachers' union leader Albert Shanker, and how the teachers' union has worked over the years to protect teachers.

As the school year enters "crunch time," when teachers and their students need extra focus to conclude their curriculum and get ready for exams, it cannot be helpful for teachers to be distracted by concerns about where -- or whether -- they will be employed next year. And it cannot help when junior teachers and their senior counterparts are put in the uncomfortable position of adversaries in a system that should be celebrating both of their strengths.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thursday Links

Photo used under Creative Commons from mschub

Monday, March 21, 2011

Resources at the JCC in Manhattan

We are big fans of the important programs offered to all New Yorkers by the JCC in Manhattan. This Upper West Side institution has an extensive "Special Needs" center that has programming for families and individuals from early childhood through adulthood.

On Thursday evening, April 7th, our own Susan Yellin, Esq. will be a featured speaker at the Center for Special Needs, discussing her book Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families.

Other programming is part of ongoing services targeted at various interest groups. Two of the programs that we believe to be of particular importance are those providing social opportunities and support services for teens/young adults and post-college age individuals, respectively.

The Adaptations Program targets individuals in their 20's and 30's who have attended college but need a supportive environment as they work towards their life goals, because of their learning disabilities or other issues. Adaptations offers programming ranging from exercise to social training, with a number of opportunities for peer interaction. We know of no other program in the NY Metro area that offers these kinds of services for this population -- and would love to hear about other programs if they exist.

Another program is called Transitions, and is aimed at teens and young adults (ages 16-21) with high functioning autism, learning differences, and communication difficulties. Transitions' programming is designed to build friendships while emphasizing independence and social skills. We get lots of inquiries from parents and young adults about opportunities for social interactions for young people with limited social cognition. These two programs can offer help for this under-served group.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Failing Grades for Transition Services

A disturbing report, released this month by the the Arise Coalition, points out the continuing failure of the New York City Department of Education to meet the transition needs of students with disabilities (including learning disabilities) who are completing high school.

The Arise Coalition is a group of organizations and individuals who are committed to improving education for all students in New York City public schools. The new report is essentially a follow-up to a 2007 report issued under the auspices of Advocates for Children, entitled "Transitioning to Nowhere." The new report, entitled "Out of School and Unprepared: The Need to Improve Support for Students with Disabilities Transitioning to Adulthood" includes an examination of students with a wide variety of disabilities -- and thus a wide variety of needs and plans as high school education comes to an end.

The report highlights such grim statistics as the fact that only one in four students with disabilities in the class of 2009 graduated from high school in 4 years and that less than 17% of students with disabilities are "college and career ready" when they graduate.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has expanded its requirements for transition planning in its most recent revision and requires that schools undertake a meaningful transition process that is designed to be "coordinated," "results oriented," and "based on the individual child's needs, taking into account the child's strengths, preferences, and interests." The failure of New York City to make transition a meaningful experience for too many students includes such recurring issues as not including outside agencies (upon which the student may be relying for services after high school) in the post-secondary planning process and not addressing students' diploma status and goals. As alternatives to New York's Regents examinations are being slowly cut back, students who find it problematic to pass the required number of Regents exams need careful guidance so they are not relegated unnecessarily to what is called an IEP diploma, but is really just a certificate and does not have the same status as a high school diploma.

Transition to adulthood is not an easy process for most young people and for those who have struggled in school, it is even more complex. The legal scaffolding is in place to provide meaningful guidance for this process, to begin here in New York at age 14 (age 15 in other states). What is needed is for the New York City Department of Education and those charged with implementing its policies to understand that failure to provide meaningful transition services is setting vulnerable students up for future difficulties.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Dose of Their Own Medicine

A recent settlement announced by the U.S. Department of Justice with the US Board of Medical Examiners highlights some of the issues faced by students taking standardized tests, such as the SAT, the ACT, or the US Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

All of these high stakes exams are governed by the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which requires that private entities such as the College Board or the National Board of Medical Examiners must offer their exams in an accessible place and manner to individuals with disabilities.

The regulations to the ADA explain that modifications to such exam can include things like extended time or the manner in which the exam is given. The regulations also give examples of what they call "auxiliary aids and services" such as Brailled or large print questions and answer sheets, or transcribers for individuals with manual impairments.

In the recent settlement, Frederick Romberg, a medical student, was denied test accommodations for the first part of his medical licensing examination (called Step 1) on the basis of dyslexia, a learning disability. The denial was based on the test organization's finding that Romberg failed to demonstrate that he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, which requires that an individual be "substantially limited in a major life activity". Although this dispute was resolved by settlement, it is clear from its terms that the Justice Department did not accept the NBME position on how to determine whether a person is entitled to accommodations. In addition to the requirements that this settlement imposes on the NBME, other private testing organizations -- the College Board (SAT) and the ACT folks included -- can consider themselves reminded about what they need to do when faced with an application for disability accommodations.

The agreed-to terms of the settlement in the Romberg case include:
  • The Board must limit its request for documentation to what is reasonable to demonstrate a disability
  • Documentation should be focused on whether and how the applicant's ability to take the exam under standard conditions is impacted
  • The Board must carefully consider the recommendation of qualified professionals who have observed the applicant in a clinical setting
  • The Board needs to consider whether applicant's ability to read (since this was a dyslexia case) is restricted compared to the ability of most people
  • Where, as here, an individual did not have his learning disability diagnosed until later in life, the Board must consider reasonably supported explanations, academic records, and other evidence about the applicant's reading ability
  • Considerable weight must be given to past accommodations, such as in an IEP or 504 Plan
As for Mr. Romberg -- he was given a separate testing area and double the standard testing time for the first two parts of his medical licensing exam. In addition to providing the basis for the Justice Department to remind testing organizations of their responsibilities, we suspect this settlement will result in Mr. Romberg changing his title to Dr. Romberg within the next few years.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Innovation in New York City Public Schools

The Innovation Zone (iZone) is a project of the New York City Department of Education designed to move education into the 21st Century. This program was begun in 2010 to address three initial areas of traditional education: the way the school day and school year calendar are structured, the role of teachers and how they are compensated, and how knowledge is delivered to individual students.

The project is intended as a three year initiative which will be implemented in one form or another in over 400 schools of all levels -- elementary through high schools. Not all schools will participate in each area of innovation; schools and their leadership have been and will be given a good deal of latitude to "try on" various programs. For example, for this school year, eight schools have been working on changes to an academic schedule which had its origins in the needs of an agricultural population. These involve both changes to the school day schedule and, by using collaborative teaching techniques which free up teachers to take vacation time outside the usual holiday and summer periods, changes to the academic calendar as well.

Other schools will use online learning to give students access to advanced coursework they might not otherwise have available. Still other schools will provide individualized learning to each student -- each of whom will be provided with their own laptop computers to use in school. The programs implemented through the iZone are intended to be based on the best available research and will, in turn, be reviewed for efficacy using a number of evaluation parameters.

The technology company Cisco initially provided much of the technical and financial support for these initiatives, but that is no longer the case. Although private funders have stepped in, it is not clear how long these innovations and the technology needed to support them will be able to continue in a city that claims it needs to lay off hundreds or thousands of teachers for lack of funds. Still, we have learned that new schools are being added to the program for 2011-2012 and we will check in to see how things are going during the next school year.

In the meantime, there is an in depth examination of this initiative by Andrea Gabor in the Gotham Gazette from September, 2010.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Conference on Dyslexia and Related Learning Issues

Next Monday and Tuesday, March 14th and 15th, the 38th Annual Conference of the New York Branch of the International Dyslexia Association will take place in New York City. This conference always attracts a large number of educators, parents, and clinicians and offers sessions to appeal to a wide variety of interests.

This year's program includes a session on Monday by Dr. Paul Yellin, who will be speaking on "Learning Differences in High Achieving Students." This session will focus on Dr. Yellin's experiences working with medical students, college students, and young adults with a variety of learning differences. He will examine case studies which illustrate critical features of learning differences and their impact on academic success and work productivity, and discuss an interdisciplinary approach to assessment, diagnosis and treatment.

On Tuesday, Susan Yellin, Esq., Yellin Center Director of Advocacy and Transition Services will be joined by Christina Bertsch, as they discuss "Life After High School: Keys to College Success" and other issues raised by their book, Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families."

Also on Tuesday, Jo Anne Simon, Esq. will be discussing high stakes standardized tests, such as the SAT, and issues about eligibility for accommodations under the latest revision of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

These are only a few of the 60 plus sessions this conference will offer. If you have some time on Monday or Tuesday (one day registration is available) you might want to join us there!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

College Concerns

A recent column by Bob Herbert in the New York Times looked at a new book that revealed some troubling data about what students get out of their time in college. The book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,was written by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, based upon a study they conducted under the auspices of the Social Science Research Council and its collaborators.

The book's thesis is that not only are students enrolling in college ill prepared to do serious learning, but that they do not generally improve their acquisition of knowledge or skills, in large part because they spend little time studying and devote a significant amount of their time and energies to social pursuits that are not connected to academics. And much of the blame, the book's authors believe, is due to the failure of colleges to demand the kind of academic rigor that would require students to take their studies more seriously. The book looks at financial factors and campus cultures that impact the kind of teaching and expectations that foster the limited academic growth and make the point that the grades of these students have not dropped substantially, even as actual learning and acquisition of critical thinking skills has declined.

Bob Herbert expresses his concern with the impact this "skating by" has on our country's role in the world and notes that too many students are leaving college without necessary skills. "The students who don’t develop them may leave college with a degree and an expanded circle of friends, but little more," Herbert notes.

As we work with college bound students and those already enrolled in college, we have noted one relevant, anecdotal factor: students in small colleges tend to be less likely to get lost in the crowd and often find it easier to establish the kind of academic linkages with their professors that lead them to real thinking and learning. It is certainly something to consider when thinking about college choices.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Study: Sleep has Major Impact on Learning

A new study by researchers at UC Berkeley has found that special, speedy brain waves - known as "sleep spindles" - may have a deep impact on our ability to take in new information and to consolidate and store what we have recently learned. The findings could have implications on scheduling for education, and further support our strong belief in the value of good sleep habits in fostering healthy, successful students.

According to Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and senior author of the study, published in the new issue of the journal Current Biology, “our findings demonstrate that sleep may selectively seek out and operate on our memory systems to restore their critical functions.This discovery indicates that we not only need sleep after learning to consolidate what we’ve memorized, but that we also need it before learning, so that we can recharge and soak up new information the next day.”

Read more here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

"Lecture Offers Tips on Helping Children to Remember" published a great article last week ("Lecture offers tips on helping children to remember," March 3, 2011) about Dr. Yellin's recent presentation to the Upper Saddle River Parent Education Support Group in Upper Saddle River, N.J.

"I once had a father tell me he thought his son just needed to try harder because he wasn’t doing well in school," Yellin said. "So, I told him to take off his glasses and read a sign on the wall. He took off his glasses and said, ‘I can’t read the sign.’ I responded to him, ‘Well, try harder.’
"This is what’s it’s like when children have memory issues. Trying harder is not the issue," he said to a smiling audience.
Thanks to Ann Marie Kennedy and everyone in Upper Saddle River for inviting Dr. Yellin to speak!

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Learning from "The King's Speech"

At this Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, The King’s Speech reigned, winning four awards, including Best Picture. Having been touched by the film, I was happy with the Academy’s decision. The movie offers a poignant portrayal of King George VI and his struggles with stuttering. Colin Firth, who won Best Actor for his starring role in the film, reflected that, “I think what Bertie – King George VI – experienced as a child was that his stammer was somehow being connected with his slowness of learning, or the fluency problem was also a lack of wit. And he was anything but witless.”

Too often, children who are struggling with a particular aspect of learning, and who do not understand why school is so hard for them, come to see themselves as globally deficient. In the absence of a thorough understanding of their strengths and challenges, characteristics which everyone has, children may attach negative labels to themselves. Perhaps Firth was right and King George VI saw himself as generally dim rather than, more accurately, quite bright with a particular impediment. The film certainly conveys that the king’s speech difficulties were affecting him emotionally, and at the same time, his emotional stress was worsening the stutter. This type of vicious cycle is one that plagues many struggling young people, whose frustrations can begin to take a toll on their self-esteem, which may in turn negatively impact their future performance.

To break the cycle, parents, clinicians and educators should focus on demystifying students, so that they can learn about what is behind their challenges, and highlighting their assets, so that they can begin to feel better about themselves as learners. Students should be empowered with strategies, based on their particular profiles, to improve or bypass their areas of weakness and strengthen their areas of strength. In doing so, we will promote success by addressing skill-building in tandem with self-confidence-building, with improvement in each area in turn promoting the development of the other.

King George VI’s true power came not from inheriting the throne but from finding his voice. Likewise, children’s academic empowerment should begin from a base of self-understanding.