School district must ensure no students are left behind | Island Forum

The school buses on Mercer Island have started rolling again, picking up kids with their new backpacks and fresh haircuts. While this annual rite is usually met with excitement by both kids and parents, there is a growing number of Islanders who are leaving the district in search of the educational opportunities they should be receiving here — but are not.

For the past year, a dedicated group of Mercer Island parents of students with dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADHD have spent countless hours to help educate the district on how to best accommodate these students. This parental advocacy group, MIFAPE, has mobilized around a fundamental legal rule that guarantees every child — regardless of ability — access to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE).

The Federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is designed to ensure that students with disabilities receive equal access to education. From simple accommodations to special education services in typical classrooms with supplemental services, the laws are in place to provide essential educational services.  Some of the most common learning disabilities that are required to be accommodated under the law are dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADHD.

Approximately 15-20 percent of students have a language-based learning disability such as dyslexia or dysgraphia. Dyslexia is a learning weakness in the phonological component of language (the manipulation of sounds). Dysgraphia is difficulty writing coherently, which is often accompanied with dyslexia. People with dysgraphia often have a higher than average IQ.  ADHD impacts more than 10 percent of students and manifests as trouble paying attention or controlling impulsive behavior without thinking of the result. Not surprisingly, ADHD often exists alongside other learning disabilities.

Despite this significant population of students in our elementary, middle and high schools who need a phonics-structured language program taught with multisensory techniques, no plans are in place for 2012-2013. Although these methods could benefit all learners in all grades, district administrators have recently announced that they are still trying to identify “best-instructional practices” for these so-called “struggling learners.” Given the district’s failure to differentiate dyslexic readers from “garden variety” struggling readers and to provide scientifically proven curriculum and teaching methodologies, these students will suffer and fall behind for yet another year.

And so another year begins — not with the bright promise of what lies ahead, but with disappointment in the knowledge that many will fall behind. As a result of the district’s failure to accommodate this group of bright, talented kids, Island parents are faced with a multiple-choice test they feel sure to fail. Many are choosing to move their children from their local schools to expensive, but effective, private schools designed to meet their needs. Others homeschool or hire private tutors and therapists.

Although frustrated that the district has yet to do its homework, the parent advocates of MIFAPE are not giving school administrators a pass. This tireless group has sharpened its pencils and is ready to help the district learn its duties so that these kids can learn.

Jeanette M. Petersen is a Mercer Island resident and lawyer. She is the mother of a first-grader who attends Hamlin Robinson School in Seattle and a third-grader who attends Island Park.


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