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Is Georgia failing to identify and test for learning disabilities?

A DeKalb parent sent me the letter she wrote to the governor and the local and state school superintendents about delays in diagnosing her son’s dyslexia.

Even after her son's diagnosis, the mother discovered at a “Meet the Teacher” event this week that his high school teachers were unaware he now has a 504 plan in place. A 504 plan details the modifications and accommodations students diagnosed with special needs must have to succeed in school.

The mother points out her son compensated for his learning disabilities for years, something parents often tell me is the case.

Here is her letter:

Governor Deal,

You state on your website that a strong education system leads to a strong economy. You recognize that for Georgia to remain an economic leader in the Southeast, Georgia must not only produce an educated workforce, but most also ensure that every student receive opportunities to reach their full potential.

I want to let you know, based on my experience with my child, that the school system is failing to ensure that every child is able to reach their full potential.

My son joined the DeKalb County School System in the fourth grade, after years at a Montessori school. His new teachers noticed that he was deficient in spelling and handwriting and struggled to write coherent narratives. From fourth grade to ninth grade he made mostly A’s. He would occasionally forget his work, or a teacher would not be able to read his handwriting and he would receive a zero, but it was not constant, so we did not worry. And, we took the stance that he was learning from his mistakes.

Everything changed his sophomore year. His grades slipped — he would do his work, carry it to school, and forget to turn in assignments even when students around him were turning in their work. He went from an A student, to an F and C student. We enrolled him in a study skills tutoring class, we met with teachers, and we met with his counselor. We heard things like “He just has to decide to do the work,” and “We see this at this age,” and “This is typical.”

We asked the assistant principal of testing and the counselor about testing for ADHD and were told that DeKalb County did not test for ADHD. Luckily for us and our son, we have the means to finance independent testing. Not every parent and child in Georgia have that option.

The tests showed conclusively that my son is dyslexic and has ADHD — and if the decision had been left to the county, he would not have been tested. We were shocked, but the puzzle pieces fell into place. The awful handwriting and spelling are indicators of dysgraphia, itself a hallmark of dyslexia. And the forgetfulness regarding assignments was a result of sensory overload.

We took the findings to the school and after a few weeks’ delay, we met with some teachers about the findings. When they saw the results, they were surprised that he had not been diagnosed already. You see, my son is a bright kid, and had so far had managed to squeak by.

But he went years without that diagnosis, and this is how he has been disadvantaged. If my son had been tested in the fourth grade—or even earlier in his sophomore year—his GPA may not have suffered.

He wants to go to Georgia Tech to study architecture or engineering. And while we will still work toward that goal, as it stands, from what I understand of Georgia Tech’s incoming freshman class, my son will not be a candidate. He will be lucky to even get his GPA back up to a standard where a second-tier college in the state would consider him as a candidate.

So Georgia has lost all of that potential.

My heart aches for the thousands of children, who like my son, have been compensating and have developed coping mechanisms to mask their disabilities, only to hit a point where they are finally overwhelmed and their coping mechanisms fail them. To teachers, like the ones my son had in 10th grade, these students can appear disinterested, indifferent, and lazy. If these children do not have parents who can be advocates, who are savvy enough to navigate the system, and who have resources to independently test their children, many of these children, and all of their potential, will wither. And I know this to be a fact, because if the decision had been left up to DeKalb County my son would never have been screened for learning disabilities.

I urge you to consider adopting a program like the one implemented in Mississippi that screens every single student for dyslexia and related disorders at a young age. As the result of a 2012 law, Mississippi requires that kindergartners or first-graders be tested for dyslexia.

I urge you to adopt standards that reward school systems that do more than the bare legal minimum standard of screening children for learning disabilities only after a child has fallen an entire grade level behind the standard or have become disruptive to the classroom. If more students like my son were screened earlier — when teachers first suspect issues may be present — rather than after a child has flunked and fallen dramatically behind, then more students will thrive, and isn’t that the goal?

If you truly want Georgia to achieve your goal of having a strong education system that provides a foundation for a strong economy, Georgia cannot continue to allow its school systems to do the bare legal minimum regarding screening children for learning disabilities.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.