BEYOND THE CLASSROOM LEFT UNTREATED, LEARNING DISABILITIES CAN EXACT AN ERNORMOUS TOLL ON SOCIETY Series: BEYOND THE CLASSROOM FIRST OF THREE PARTS

Article excerpt

LONNIE is 15 1/2 and failing. Failing in school, failing in life.

He shouldn't be.

Psychological tests show Lonnie is of average intelligence - actually, a bit above. But he's reading and writing on a fourth-grade level. His math skills aren't much better.

Lonnie was diagnosed in the third grade as learning disabled and behavior disordered. He began receiving services through Special School District of St. Louis County.

In the seventh grade, he was placed on Ritalin, a stimulant medication used for attention disorders. There was no reported change in behavior.

His parents said Lonnie was still "out of control."

Now Lonnie has been suspended for 90 days for brandishing a weapon at his high school. Authorities suspect he's involved in a gang and in dealing drugs.

This isn't the first time Lonnie (not his real name) has been in trouble. At 13, he ran away from home. At 14, he spent time in an alcohol rehabilitation program.

Lonnie is under the formal supervision of Family Court of St. Louis County. Through the court, he's participating in Project LEARN, trying to boost basic skills until he can be placed in a technical school or enter a general-equivalency diploma program.

Lonnie and his classmates at Project LEARN come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and school systems, but they share some common problems.

They've all been suspended, expelled or are truant. Most have run afoul of the law. And they've all had a long history of academic failure, often exacerbated by either undiagnosed or untreated learning disabilities.

***** The Cost Of Contributions Unmade

An estimated 5 percent to 15 percent of American schoolchildren suffer from learning disabilities. And such problems can have impact well beyond the classroom walls.

A disproportionate number of adults with unremediated learning disabilities wind up on welfare or as part of the criminal justice system. And the costs - in terms of wasted human potential and taxpayers' dollars - are enormous.

Between 35 and 50 percent of learning disabled students in the United States drop out before high school graduation. In a technology-based world in which literacy is essential and higher education a necessity for career advancement, their employment prospects are dim.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that 25 to 40 percent of adults on Aid to Families With Dependent Children are learning disabled. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 15 to 30 percent of all Job Training Partnership Act participants have learning disabilities as well.

Various studies of the U.S. penal system suggest 60 to 80 percent of the adult prison population may have untreated learning problems.

Intense academic tutoring - the kind Project LEARN is performing - costs taxpayers about $2,000 a year per student. If it succeeds in helping kids re-enter the educational system, that's relatively inexpensive. If it fails, it may lead to far more expensive measures.

Nationally, incarceration costs taxpayers an estimated $25,000 a year per inmate. (Missouri's costs - $10,000 annually - are the lowest in the country.) That doesn't include the human cost of innocent citizens victimized by crime. And it doesn't include the costs of societal contributions never made by intellectually capable kids like Lonnie.

***** `Dysfunction In Life'

Though the term "learning disabilities" was coined more than 30 years ago, there remains widespread disagreement over its definition.

Generally, educators speak of learning disabled children as students of average to superior intelligence who do not perform up to their potential in the classroom. Psychologists talk about children who exhibit uneven patterns of language, perceptual or motor development. …