Colleges Provide Lift over Learning Hurdles

Article excerpt

Legend says Albert Einstein was such a terrible student that his teachers told his parents he would be lucky to finish primary school - much less go on to higher education.

Thomas Edison also was deemed a scholastic disaster - unable to stay focused in a classroom he considered an obstacle to acting on the ideas filling his head.

Today they would be labeled "learning disabled" and given special support throughout their educational lives. Experts on learning disabilities estimate that 10 percent - or 5 million to 10 million - schoolchildren in the United States have some type of learning disability. This designation covers a wide range of problems - from dyslexia, a reading disability in which letters may be transposed, to dyscalculia, in which students struggle with math.

Federal law since the early 1970s has required all public schools to provide special support for such students. However, it wasn't until the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990 that post-secondary schools felt compelled to offer similar support.

VARYING LEVELS OF SUPPORT

The level of support varies from grudging concessions - such as allowing learning disabled students to take untimed tests - to extensive school-within-school programs that provide tutoring and remedial workshops.

"Nationwide, there has been a threefold increase in learning disabled freshmen," says Barbara Guyer, director of Higher Education for Learning Problems (HELP) at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. The program, founded by Ms. Guyer in 1981, was one of the first comprehensive college-level programs in the country.

Not only are many more learning disabled students attempting college than ever before, Ms. Guyer says, but with the assistance of programs such as HELP, many are succeeding and earning college degrees.

"By the time these students reach college, they're already carrying a lot of baggage, having known more failure than success," she says. "The key is to help them find their strengths at the same time that they receive help in overcoming their weaknesses."

The HELP program offers a combination of extensive tutoring, counseling, and study and time-management workshops. This all comes with a price tag that is an add-on to the college's tuition and fees.

KNOW YOUR NEEDS

Parents, as well as incoming freshman, must know their own needs, says Gila Landman, career counselor at Chelsea School, a private school in Silver Spring that specializes in educating students with learning disabilities. Of the 13 students in Chelsea's 1999 graduating class, "all but one are going on to advanced education," she says.

Their destinations range from a local community college where a talented dancer will take a lighter than full-time academic load while pursuing her dance career to the University of Maryland at College Park - a campus of 35,000 students that is not traditionally chosen by Chelsea students.

"We generally direct our students into smaller schools that offer a comprehensive support program," Ms. Landman says. "But in the 13 years that I've been in this position, I've seen a tremendous change in the colleges' attitudes."

She says many schools once resented having to accommodate students they saw as potential problems. Now many - if not most - schools have special departments with trained professionals to help learning disabled students succeed in school - and life.

Parents need to know their children, Ms. Landman says, and look at other vocational opportunities as well as colleges. "Some 18-year-olds may not be ready for college," she says, adding that many transitional programs are available to help students work on their social as well as academic skills for a year before heading off to college.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT SCHOOL

Peterson's Colleges With Programs for Students With Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit Disorders, edited by professors Stephen Strichart and Charles Mangrum, lists 1,000 schools offering some type of support for learning disabled students. …