Denim Padberg, an 11-year-old Dixon boy who has become an advocate for kids with dyslexia, knows firsthand the effects of an unsupportive education system. A public school teacher’s comment more than two years ago still bothers him, though it may have been meant as a compliment: “He’s too smart to be dyslexic.”
The remark reflects what Mimi Corcoran, president and CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, calls one of the myths of dyslexia – that children with this genetic neurological condition are less intelligent than their peers.
There are other misconceptions, she said: that dyslexic kids are lazy and slow and that holding them back a year will give them a chance to catch up on reading and math skills.
Padberg is not the only student with learning disabilities the New Mexico education system has been slow to help. New Mexico has one of the poorest records in the nation when it comes to serving public school students with dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other learning and attention issues, a new report says.
The report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a 30-year-old advocacy group, says students with these conditions are graduating from high schools nationwide at a rate more than 10 percent lower than the overall student population. The graduation gap in New Mexico is far wider, the report says, at nearly 32 percent – the second worst in the nation.
By all appearances, Padberg is exceptionally intelligent and motivated to learn. Last year, he was honored by the New Mexico Legislature for self-publishing his own guide to quantum physics. This year, he’s writing horror fiction and has taken an interest in videography. His mother, Michele Padberg, describes him as “thirsty for knowledge.”
But, she said, “this giftedness actually made it harder to get accommodations.” Teachers thought he just needed more time and didn’t provide him with the tools to thrive, even the educational aids listed in his special-education plan, such as a headset and audiobooks, and someone to read test questions aloud to him. They often would say, “We know you can get this – just try harder,” Padberg said. She disagreed. Her son became increasingly frustrated. He was ready to give up on school altogether by the end of third grade.
The recently released report, titled “The State of Learning Disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5,” says many state education departments, not just New Mexico’s, are slow to enforce policies and adopt practices that ensure students like Padberg are succeeding, even as new research has led to greater knowledge of the physiological and cognitive aspects of learning disabilities and health conditions that cause attention issues, such as ADHD, and has paved the way for more effective teaching strategies and technological aids. Too many students, the report says, are leaving high school ill prepared to advocate for themselves as they enter colleges and careers.
In a survey of students with learning disabilities who had dropped out of school, a wide majority said they didn’t like school and cited poor relationships with teachers and other students.
“If they’re not graduating, it begins to spiral and begins a negative trajectory for them,” said Corcoran.
The report cites a need for school districts to identify disabilities earlier, increase teacher training, educate parents, help students build self-advocacy skills and begin focusing earlier on students’ plans for the future.
As the report’s subtitle suggests, the advocacy group believes learning disorders affect about 1 in 5 students, or 20 percent, though far fewer are identified.
While children with developmental delays and speech impairments are often diagnosed by age 6, the report says, students with learning disabilities are more commonly identified much later – around age 10 – delaying interventions, even though children often show signs at a young age. This means that by the end of third grade, when students are highly pressured to show proficiency in reading, a child with undiagnosed dyslexia is likely, in many states, to be held back.
Not all states are failing students in these special-education categories. According to the report, 95 percent of New Jersey students with learning disabilities and attention disorders who left high school in 2014-15 walked away with a diploma; 5 percent dropped out. The state’s overall graduation rate was 89.7 percent that year.
The two numbers can’t be directly compared, the study’s authors cautioned, because the four-year graduation rate is based on a different calculation.
Still, the data show some of the top-ranked states, like New Jersey, Indiana and Minnesota, are far more successful than New Mexico at addressing the needs of students with learning disabilities.
Alabama was ranked No. 2, just behind New Jersey, but an audit released in June shows that state inflated its graduation rates for years, a practice that may have affected its ranking in the report.
The report is largely based on data from 2014-15. New Mexico didn’t provide statistics for that year, but its data from the previous year would have placed it second to last in the report’s rankings, just ahead of Nevada.
In 2013-14, when New Mexico had the lowest graduation rate in the nation at 68.5 percent, just 37 percent of students with learning disabilities who left public high schools earned a diploma, according to the report.
A quarter of those students dropped out, and 37 percent were given a certificate of completion, which shows they attended school, but didn’t meet the standards for graduation.
In response to the report, New Mexico Public Education Department spokeswoman Lida Alikhani said in an email, “Our graduation rate is at an all-time high but we recognize that there is still a lot more work to do. We have put forth numerous initiatives aimed at helping all students including those with disabilities.”
For instance, the department’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation is working on an initiative to provide assistance and job-skills training for students with disabilities who are transitioning out of high school, the email said.
New Mexico, like dozens of states, has a law that requires interventions for students in kindergarten through third grade who test poorly in reading. New Jersey’s literacy laws, in comparison, include more specific provisions for dyslexia and focus on teacher training.
“New Jersey law provides for dyslexia and reading disability screening in kindergarten, professional development for K-3 reading teachers and special educators, and instruction in dyslexia awareness and intervention for current teachers and teacher candidates,” the report says.
David Saenz, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education, said the state also has initiatives to help older students with learning disabilities transition into adulthood.
When special-education students turn 14, he said, they begin attending meetings to discuss their Individualized Education Program, a legal document that addresses a student’s specific needs. “The team must identify the student’s strengths and preferences and a course of study consistent with those strengths and preferences and the student’s postsecondary goals,” Saenz said.
Each year, he said, the education department “conducts Dare to Dream conferences, where students with IEPs come together learn self-advocacy skills from their peers, hear from successful adults who have disabilities and learn about all New Jersey has to offer to support their transition and life in their communities.”
Minnesota has developed a system to improve its schools and raise graduation rates for all students, including those with learning disorders, that emphasizes a big benefit to the community: a stronger workforce. The World’s Best Workforce initiative, written into state law, requires each school district to set its own priorities and goals, plus create its own strategies to carry out the plan.
Emily Bisek, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the agency also focuses on family support: “We try to help families learn how to be your child’s best advocate.”
That’s an effort Michele Padberg would appreciate. She was trained as a volunteer with the Court Appointed Special Advocate program to assist foster children, she said, and she learned advocacy skills before her son, Denim Padberg, entered school. Those tools proved useful.
“Being an advocate is not easy,” she said, “and most parents struggle, wanting to be liked and not upset the teachers.”
Denim Padberg, meanwhile, has left the traditional public school system and is progressing more quickly at Taos Academy Charter School. He plans to complete seventh- and eighth-grade curricula there in the coming school year.
The small school, which earned an A from the state three years in a row, provides what Director Traci Filiss calls “personalized learning,” combining an online component with rigorous class instruction and activities with teachers who are trained to address a range of student learning styles and needs.
It’s a model that could be replicated in public schools to help students with special needs succeed, she said. But that would require a change in mindset.
“Success is in the hands of the learner,” Filiss said. “... This alone is incredibly empowering for students – and especially those with a disability because it is the first time they are in control of learning and not judged against others in their class.”