For Students with Disabilities, it’s All in the Plan

November 28th, 2009
By Sarah Palermo | Sentinel Source

Derrick Pendilla is 12 years old, loves sports, cartoons, his dog and his little sister. All of his classes — he’s in 6th-grade at Keene Middle School — are his favorite.

He wants to be a zookeeper when he grows up, and if asked about his favorite animals, he questions if you mean his favorite mammal or reptile, because he has one of each.

This past summer, he caught a snapping turtle one day while out fishing.

In many ways, Derrick is unique among the 5,000 students in the Keene School District.

In one big way, he’s not.

He’s one of the hundreds of children in local schools who lives every day with a disability.

When Derrick was only a few months old, his mom, Shannon, and dad, Darrell, noticed he wasn’t crawling, sitting up, or starting to move the way they were told he would.

At his first-year checkup, his pediatrician started the ball rolling on tests and specialists, and Derrick was eventually diagnosed with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. The disease causes rigid muscles that Derrick can’t move easily, leading to trouble with motor skills, cognitive processes, mobility and speaking.

Through the years that diagnosis has meant a lot of things to the Pendilla family.

Often, it’s meant Derrick is the center of attention, a position he doesn’t mind much at all.

One day this past fall, a group of adults spent several hours focused on Derrick, learning how to use a special chair designed to help get him out of the school quickly in case of an emergency.

Surrounded by teachers, therapists, his parents and his aide, Derrick said he felt “like a superstar.”

He also got the star treatment during the scavenger hunt, designed to help the 6th-graders learn the layout of the school, and learn vocabulary to help them read maps.

To get around the three floors, Derrick got to use the school’s elevator, which on one level is located inside a classroom.

A few students watched as Derrick and “Mr. B.,” his aide, marched in and out of the elevator doors, on a mission to meet up with the rest of their team and find the clues.

“Mr. B.” is Christian Battaglia, Derrick’s one-on-one aide. He helps Derrick get around the school and take notes, because holding a pencil can be tough.

Having a one-on-one aide is something that’s in Derrick’s “individual education plan,” or IEP.

The plan was written in a meeting between his parents and school staff members at the beginning of the year.

According to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, commonly called IDEA, each plan is written to provide an equal playing field to students with disabilities, so they can access the curriculum and prepare for adult life.

Everything that’s in a student’s education plan is something the school is legally obligated to provide, whether it’s an aide like Battaglia, or the freedom for a child with autism to leave an overwhelming class for a few minutes of quiet time in another room.

Derrick’s first plan was written when he turned 3, the year federal laws say school districts must begin helping kids diagnosed with a disability.

Children who are diagnosed with a disability before age 3, like Derrick, get support until their third birthday from a state program called Early Supports and Services. After age 3, the responsibility shifts to the schools.

Derrick attended Keene’s preschool — which mixes students with disabilities with typical kids their age. With all the paperwork involved in shifting duties to the school district, staff members start early, evaluating and assessing a toddler with disabilities when he or she is about 21/2, said Catherine L. Reeves, director of special education for N.H. School Administrative Unit 29.

Unit 29 provides top-level administration to the Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlow, Marlborough, Nelson and Westmoreland school districts.

For every child in the special education system, whether they’re diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a baby or attention deficit disorder in high school, the path starts with a referral.

In cases where a toddler is already receiving early support services, the referral is a technicality, because educators communicate often about children who are soon turning 3, Reeves said.

But for other students, like Charlie Gurney, a referral would be the first step toward getting help.

Finding the cause of a child’s troubles

Charlie Gurney is the son of Keene’s co-superintendent, William B. Gurney.

Now attending college at a military academy, Charlie received a diagnosis of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder when he was in high school.

There had been signs for a few years, seen more easily now in hindsight, like the day Charlie forgot about the hammer.

Bill Gurney was doing housework up on a ladder fixing the eaves of their Dublin home. Charlie, then in elementary school, was playing in the yard nearby, and when Bill needed a hammer, he sent his son to the garage for it.

“Ten minutes pass, 15 minutes pass. And I’m up on a ladder, like 21/2 stories up, and there’s still no Charlie, and I’m starting to get mad. I go down and he’s standing there in the garage,” Gurney said.

His son had forgotten what he was sent to fetch, and stood staring at the tool bench. The incident inspired Bill and his wife to get some tests done.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is recognized when a person tests positive for at least nine of 18 markers — things like chronic inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. The tests showed Charlie might have some issues, but not enough to make the family seek further testing, or qualify Charlie for special education.

Then high school came. Charlie went to boarding school, a tradition in his mother’s family. His first two years, he did fine, his father said.

But in 11th-grade teachers started sending notes home that he wasn’t turning in his work.

“We were frustrated — we made a commitment to send him to that school … We thought at first he was just being lazy. As much as you love your kid, if you think they’re being lazy, you get on them,” Gurney said.

“He would come home and sleep all weekend. He’d say ‘I’m exhausted; I’m tired.’ ”

At first, Charlie’s parents thought maybe he was taking drugs. Then they decided to get another test done.

The second round of test results showed Charlie tested positive for 16 of the 18 markers for ADHD.

“It made us feel a little guilty,” Bill Gurney said. “We were riding him pretty hard. I wouldn’t make him run a race with a broken leg, but we were saying ‘Why can’t you keep up?’ when there was a real physical issue behind it.

“It’s a relief when you know that your kid is doing their best.”

The public school special education system can work in much the same way: A parent notices something is wrong, and the student is tested. But, often the wheels of support start turning early.

Teachers, counselors, aunts, uncles, grandparents — anyone can make a referral, recommending that a child be evaluated for a learning disability or other issue.

Once that referral is made, the school district calls together a team of people, called the IEP team — which stands for the “individual education plan” team.

Every team includes the parents, a special education teacher and regular classroom teacher, and anyone else the parents or district officials think should be there, such as counselors, evaluators or volunteer advocates.

The team tries to answer three questions to determine whether the child should receive special education services.

First, is there a disability?

While it might seem simple, this question, like most about special education, isn’t.

The federal government lists which disabilities qualify for special education services, but each state defines those disabilities, and each school district sets its own threshold for what it means.

If a child is diagnosed with a disability, the team poses another question: Does it have an adverse effect on the child’s ability to learn?

There are some children who have a disability, but can still learn and keep up with their peers. In those cases, no special services are allocated.

The third question asks if the child is in need of specialized instruction.

If the answer to all three questions is “yes,” the parents and school staff members sit down to draft the student’s IEP.

Each plan describes how the child is performing, and how that’s affected by his or her disability.

The plan also outlines goals that should be achieved during the coming school year, and what services and supports will be provided to help the child achieve them.

The team also decides the least restrictive environment where the child’s plan can be put into action. For most students, that’s the regular classroom with some support from the special education teacher for certain periods of the day.

Others might need to spend most of their time in a smaller class, or in a program with staff members who are specifically trained to help students with a particular disability.

Students with even more severe disabilities might be placed at facilities like Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center, Perkins School for the Blind or Kendall Farm, a program in Vermont for children with disruptive behavioral problems.

Every year, the IEP team meets to review the child’s progress, and whether the plan still addresses his or her needs.

Educators have a bigger plan in mind than just assuring a student makes it through the next school year, Reeves said.

“The goal is to put ourselves out of business” by giving students strategies to cope with their disabilities, she said.

“If we’re doing a good job, we are helping children to advocate for themselves … because their disability in all likelihood isn’t going to go away. People with a learning disability will have it forever. We try and figure out what strategies will they need to employ in order to be successful in college or in the world of work.”

Derrick Pendilla raises his hand to answer a question in health class. Pendilla needs assistance to take notes and write answers but loves participating in class. To his left is his one-on-one aide, Christian Battaglia. Others in the class, from center to right: teacher Deb Thompson, Justin Johnson, Tyler Fish, John Bisson and Lexi Riley in the foreground.


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