More than 45,000 Washington students have learning disabilities, and a new report says 35 percent of them are dropping out of high school. A national researcher says it doesn’t have to be this way.
After watching her grandson as he was repeatedly suspended from school, Cheryl Dungan struggled to get his behavior diagnosed. He had difficulties with writing, depression and disobedience, but Dungan says school officials responded to these things in only one way: discipline.
Eventually, she turned to the state education department. By then, between suspensions for disruptive behavior and disrespect, Cody Haines, age 14, had missed 58 days of class time — nearly half the academic year.
Darrington School District officials were cited by the Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction for excessively disciplining the boy while failing to address his academic and behavioral needs, and the tiny district of 400 students eventually covered the cost of a private school out of state. A new report puts their struggles with Cody into stark context, noting that there are 45,300 learning-disabled kids in Washington, many of whom don’t get the support they need.
“I kept suggesting that they quit suspending him from class and start letting him learn,” said Dungan, the boy’s legal guardian. “But removing him seemed to be their only method of discipline, and it kept putting him farther and farther behind.”
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 35 percent of Washington’s 147,000 Special Education students drop out of high school, a rate among the highest of the 40 states studied.
Nate Olson, spokesman for the state education department, said OSPI data show a 23 percent dropout rate for Special Education students after five years of high school. Without studying the learning-disabilities report, he declined to comment on the apparent discrepancy.
The National Center, which examined data from the 2015-16 school year, says 20 percent of all U.S. students have learning disabilities or behavioral issues. But he said far fewer are identified for special education and get schooling tailored to their needs. For this reason, says the report, though learning-disabled students may be as intelligent as their peers, they are more likely to repeat a grade, get suspended or drop out.
“It could be that teachers are not well trained to recognize or support kids with learning issues, or that they maintain lower expectations for those students,” said Sheldon Horowitz, an author of the report. “But we’re not talking about a small number of individuals. We’re talking about one in five children across the country who have dyslexia, ADHD or other issues. These kids are just as smart as their peers, and there’s no reason, with the right support, that they can’t do as well.”
Yet like Cody — who finally left Darrington schools — many flounder, particularly after their school years are over. According to the report, only 46 percent of adults with learning disabilities are employed.
Horowitz says that downward spiral can be prevented.
In Massachusetts, for example, 77 percent of Special Education students graduate from high school with full diplomas. And in New Jersey, 94 percent make it through — the highest rate in the country.
Causes for such disabilities can be genetic, chemical or trauma-based. And early intervention is key to improving outcomes, Horowitz said.
For that reason, he applauds Washington for laws requiring that all kids between kindergarten and fourth grade get tested for reading difficulties. Still, Horowitz notes some troubling disparities. Among them: in the 2013-14 school year, 9 percent of Washington students were English Language Learners. Yet they were significantly overrepresented among special-education kids.
“The numbers are pretty dramatic. It suggests that there may be some confusion between what a learning-disabled kid is and one who is learning a second language.”