Learning As Much As They Can

Learning As Much As They Can

For Arlington's students with developmental disabilities, high expectations can mean high achievements.

When teachers asked Cherie Takemoto if her 16-year-old son Pete would be taking the Standards of Learning exam that year, she was hesitant.

"I didn't really think it was worth it, but they told me he'd been doing well and that he could do this," she said.

Pete, a student at Yorktown High School, is living with developmental disabilities. In the classroom he gets extra help from teachers and takes tests in a different way — without the same time limitations, for example — than others. But, despite the challenges, Pete has come to not only survive but thrive in school. His SOL results surprised his mother.

"He didn't pass, but he missed it by only one question," she said.

There are about 90 students like Pete in Arlington's public school system, according to Director of Special Education, Norma Villanueva, in a system that instructs a total of about 3,200 with special education needs. Takemoto said every case is different, but believing in a student who might need help is the first step towards academic success. Teachers, she said, play an important role.

"There have been situations where teachers thought that Pete could do more than I thought possible," Takemoto said. "Without them pushing me and encouraging me and Pete, he wouldn't be where he is today. Arlington really does a very, very good job when it comes to students with developmental disabilities."

Teachers, she added, "need to help us parents expand our expectations for our children, and as parents we need to have higher expectations. It took both for Pete to be successful. I'm so proud of him."

High expectations, said Villanueva — who took on her position only six months ago after serving as an administrator overseeing work in more than 118 public schools — are an integral part of Arlington's approach to teaching students like Pete. But the first step is identifying the problems. Arlington teachers are trained to spot even the subtle signs that a student is facing a developmental obstacle in class. Such disabilities, she said, tend to surface at age 2 or 3. Catching problems at an early age can make all the difference, and if parents suspect their child might be facing such problems, professional testing is important.

"Early intervention and prevention is critical," she said.

Villanueva stressed the difference between a developmental disability and a developmental delay. Students may have learning difficulties at early age, she said, that mean they require extra attention in the classroom — a delay, but it can be managed, understood and possibly overcome with the right help. Yet for a child with a developmental disability, that is not the case.

Once problems arise, she said, teachers and school district staff spend most of a student's early academic career observing them to determine how to proceed.

"It gives us more time to see what's going on because children develop at different rates," Villanueva said. "Because kids develop at different rates, they tend to catch up. It may not necessarily be a disability."

That is why students like Pete are re-evaluated at age 9 to determine their needs. After that, teachers and district staff are required to put together an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to guide future decisions on academic progress. The program, said Villanueva, is created through conferences with teachers, parents, counselors and specialists, all seeking to diagnose and treat a student's particular disability.

"It's a multi-disciplinary approach," she said.

Arlington schools, she added, serve the needs of developmentally challenged students up to age 22.

ACCORDING TO VILLANUEVA, about one-third of Arlington's students with developmental challenges are now in the elementary school level. To meet the demand for a program addressing the needs of those students, Arlington's flagship program is the Integration Station at the Walter Reed building in North Arlington, which opened in 1991. As the name implies, its central idea is mingling students who have developmental handicaps with mainstream students. Taking a look at the students themselves as they listen to story time or play with construction paper, glue and glitter, it is hard, if not impossible, to tell who has developmental difficulties and who doesn't.

"In most cases, the kids are just part of the regular classroom," said Charlie Knisley, who coordinates the program. "At this age, they're all just working on play skills. They're all working on the same things."

Parental involvement in a child's education is always crucial, but in the case of children with developmental challenges, Knisley said, it is all the more so. To keep parents connected with what's going on in the classroom, children are given a notebook that they take with them every day to and from school. It's a simple idea, but it keeps parents and teachers in touch during a key time in a student's life. Reinforcing classroom lessons at home, Knisley said, is vital because it is easier to teach a developmentally challenged child what is right than to correct what is wrong.

"It takes them about eight or nine times to learn something," said Knisley. "It takes them about 100 times for them to unlearn it."

KNISLEY SAID integration is a two-way street for his students. Children without developmental disabilities gain exposure to those with them, helping to alleviate social stigmatization.

"The children become more aware," Knisely said. "They are not biased against children with disabilities. It becomes a normal thing."

Part of integrating students at the elementary level, Knisely said, is teaching other students about developmental disabilities to raise each student's awareness.

Elaine Perkins, coordinator for elementary school special education, said integration is something Arlington strives to accomplish when it is possible.

"We need to identify the right kind of support and ensure its there in the environment, but it generally goes smoothly," she said. "In the early years, it's easier to do."

But integration beyond the elementary school level, according to Takemoto, is an ongoing question in Arlington.

"The schools haven't necessarily figured out how to marry special education with general," said Takemoto. "There are still a number of bridges that exist to cross to make that happen."

High school can be a trying time for any student, but Takemoto said students with developmental disabilities and similar challenges face added strain when it comes to finding a social niche. To ease that problem at Yorktown, Pete took it upon himself to organize a student group with the help of student leaders for just that reason.

"There are so many kids in these schools who are lost, isolated," Takemoto said.

ARLINGTON'S PROGRAMS to address the needs of students with developmental issues have won several awards and are considered by some educators to be models for the rest of the United States. Yet there is room for improvement. Villanueva said Arlington needs increased emphasis on early intervention and on expanding services for students with autism into secondary schools.

Takemoto, who also serves with the Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center (PEATC) — an organization in Springfield devoted to students with disabilities and other special needs — said a further challenge is adapting the curriculum and testing for students like Pete.

During a March meeting of Arlington's Special Education Advisory Committee, Villanueva unveiled a 12-part plan to improve the quality of special education. It includes a focus on improved integration methods, new behavioral policies, added support for high school programs aimed at students with autism and policies to raise the level of accountability among educators.