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There’s no hanging around after last bell for the 1,385 students at Wilbur Cross High School. At least a dozen buses idle in the parking lot waiting to cart students to their homes across New Haven. Administrators distribute bus tokens or bus cards to students traveling downtown. Other students stay at school to participate in any of the eighteen clubs on campus or the various sports teams. The only rule: no hanging around the halls after last bell. According to Ronny Rosabo, a security guard who’s been at the high school for 13 years, “hanging around causes mischief.” So far I haven’t seen any mischief from the few students who roam the hall past the bell, or from the small groups leaning against the front entrance’s glass exterior. Still, his point is well taken: Wilbur Cross High School is all about getting its students somewhere. According to the mission poster hanging outside of the main office, after the final bell, graduation, the school promises to prepare active citizens ready for higher education, the military, or the workforce. From the debate team to the track field, from an Ivy League school to a two year college to a minimum wage job, the options are endless. The danger, senior administrator Robert Anderson explains, is that any of Cross’ students will end up as “a major statistic: death, jail, or an institution.” For special needs students like the senior Louie Jones, guidance toward an appropriate post-graduation track is especially important because, according to Anderson, these students are at the greatest risk for these major three. Louie desperately wants to enroll in a four-year state university next fall. His struggle is to get accepted. Wilbur Cross’s struggle is more complicated. Ethically, the school must decide how best to support a special needs student who is in denial about his own limitations.
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I first meet Louie while I’m working as a tutor for the GEAR UP Program at Wilbur Cross High School. GEAR UP is a Connecticut-wide college prep program intended “to help low-income students prepare for college, and to provide college scholarships for eligible high school seniors.” At Wilbur Cross, the program started two years ago and runs five days a week under the direction of Sara Thompson. To say that Louie participates in GEAR UP is an understatement. “He’s the first person here in the morning and the last person here at night,” Ms. Thompson says. She remembers Robert Anderson introducing her to Louie when she first started two years ago. “He asked me to help him,” she recalls. Louie’s guidance counselor, Nathan Wilden, knows Louie is determined to get a good education. “Truthfully,” he comments, “if more students had his desire, they would be better off.”
Whether Louie can survive at a four-year university with his learning disabilities is unclear. Yet, whatever reservations Ms. Thompson has about this plan for Louie, she sees her job as straightforward. “I’m not in any conflict,” Ms. Thompson explains. “It’s up to him; he’s an adult. If he wants to go to college, we’ll help him with that.”
When the last bell rings at 1:35 on the last Tuesday in September, Louie is the first student through the door: black backpack slung over one shoulder, dark jeans hanging off his narrow hips, and a bright yellow t-shirt announcing his entrance. A scrawny 18-year-old, Louie came to the United States from Jamaica to join his mother here in New Haven when he was five. That year, a speech problem landed him in special education. Now, 13 years later, his bright white smile and quick brown eyes completely mask an IQ of 76 — only six points above the cutoff for being considered “intellectually disabled” by the state of Connecticut. The Connecticut State Department of Education adopted the term intellectual disability as a substitute for mental retardation, but the definition has remained the same: “significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills.” This definition means that students like Louie suffer both academic and social handicaps. Fractions, essays, girls, parties — all aspects of life are affected by intellectual disabilities.
Louie is reluctant to speak to others about his disability because he objects to his classification as a student with special needs. “I don’t really agree with a lot of the stuff that’s in my file,” he explains, referring to his IEP — the Individualized Education Program that Wilbur Cross has developed to adapt high school to his needs.
According to Allen Solis, the special needs coordinator at GEAR UP and a Southern Connecticut State University student studying for a secondary degree in special needs education, the Individualized Education Program is part of the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which “required free and appropriate education” for students with disabilities under the age of 21. Referring to Louie’s disability, Allen admits, “I’ve worked with Louie on the college process, but he didn’t disclose it to me at first.” Still, he could tell immediately that Louie’s “verbal ability doesn’t match his intellect.” As a result of his speech therapy, Louie sounds normal when he speaks, but, as Allen explains, he has “problems following linear thinking.”
My first time working with Louie, I don’t know about his disability either. He asks for help with a worksheet on converting scientific units and scientific notation, but the real problem quickly emerges that he doesn’t know how to convert fractions to decimals. After running through some quick conversions — 1/2 equals 0.5 — I ask him his grade, assuming he is a freshman and hoping to pawn him off on one of the regular math tutors. A literature major at Yale, I’m here to read college essay drafts, not embarrass myself by exposing that I have no idea how many grams to an ounce. “A senior,” he replies. I’m shocked — this material is not much harder than the math I encounter tutoring an eleven-year-old at the John S. Martinez Middle School. When I ask tentatively if he’s planning on college, he smiles and definitively replies yes. “Can you help me with that?” There’s something about his enthusiasm that I just can’t turn down.
The college application consists of biographical information, a couple short answer questions, at least one long essay, two teacher recommendations, at least the SAT I test and often two SAT II subject tests, a high school transcript, a recommendation from the school’s college or guidance counselor, and often an interview with an admissions officer from the desired college. Only three years past my own experience with this process, I arrive at GEAR UP ready for Louie, armed with an intimate knowledge of this process that, although it often reduced me to tears, I ultimately conquered.
Because the details of his disability are confidential and Louie himself doesn’t know — or accept — the extent of his diagnosis, here is an example of a question that tests the limits of Louie’s intellectual abilities. One of the sample SAT questions posted on the College Board’s website in early October reads:
There is a housing lottery for the best room on campus. There are 200 sophomores, 150 juniors, and 100 seniors. Each sophomore’s name occurs once, each junior’s twice, each senior’s three times. What is the probability that the name drawn will be a senior’s?
This question — an average word problem on the SAT math section — tests both reading comprehension and knowledge of basic fractions. Elizabeth McCarthy, Louie’s special education counselor at Wilbur Cross, explains that even though his reading skills are “higher than his math skills,” he exhibits “very low” math skills as a result of his disability. In solving this problem, both reading and math skills hold him back. With help he identifies the meaning of the question. With help he is able to set up the fractions in the problem. And, with help, he is able to compute the multiplication and fractions. By the time the answer 3/8 is scribbled onto the page, almost 20 minutes have passed.
The emphasis is Louie’s need for help. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) outlines a comprehensive support network for students with special needs. Each of the 180 to 200 special needs students at Wilbur Cross has a specialized Individualized Educational Program (IEP), which describes the student’s needs, goals, objectives, and accommodations. Elizabeth McCarthy, who has worked in special education for 11 years, explains that there is a “huge range in modifications” depending on the disability. On the minor side, the IEP could call for use of calculators on tests, extra time, etc. The extreme side of the spectrum can place students in self-contained classrooms for “multi-handicapped students with really low cognitive functioning,” according to Melissa Pellino, the head teacher in Cross’s self-contained classroom.
The problem is that there is not always enough time to follow the IEP. Even though there is approximately a one to 10 ratio of special needs counselors to special needs students at Wilbur Cross, Mrs. McCarthy says, still, “there are not enough teachers to provide the support.” Two years ago, Wilbur Cross moved to “full inclusion,” a policy of immersing as many special needs students as possible into regular education classrooms. Each student should be supported by a special education counselor in every class period, but this goal creates serious logistical problems. Earlier this fall, Mrs. McCarthy was responsible for 18 students, meaning she was supposed to attend 47 classes a day — an obviously impossible task. “The set up is really difficult,” she says. “Immersion has huge scheduling issues.” She believes “if students are put in a regular education setting with appropriate supports, it can be successful.” But if the support is lacking or students are resistant to the help, immersion allows some students to fall through the cracks.
Throughout October, Louie tackles SAT prep books, preparing for the November 2 test date. For the college process, the SAT is virtually the make or break component. If the scores are too far below the average range of admitted students, college admissions officers won’t even consider the candidate. For Louie’s number one choice, Central Connecticut State University, the average SAT score for an admitted freshman is 1030 out of a possible 1600 points. (The Central admissions office doesn’t take the new SAT writing section into consideration.) Louie took the test during the spring of his junior year, but his score was only 480 — 210 on the math section and 270 on the verbal section. He scored highest on the writing section with 290 points, but this score won’t factor into his overall score for Central. Test takers receive 200 points on each section for writing their names, meaning Louie only answered a handful of questions right.
This first score, however, doesn’t discourage Louie. “I had trouble focusing,” he says. Then he forgets the setback, showing up the second Tuesday in October proudly sporting two huge SAT prep workbooks. He e-mails me regularly about his progress, even committing some of his Saturdays for extra studying. “I like his spirit,” comments Nicky Perrault, his junior year English teacher. “Nothing stops Louie.” When I ask her to tell me about Louie, she dissolves into laughter. “You’re writing an article on Louie? What am I gonna say about Louie? I love him.” An energetic black woman, Mrs. Perrault explains “his attitude helped him pass” English 3 last year, a regular education class. “He’s always positive… any kind of criticism and he’s unfazed.” But Mrs. McCarthy has a different take on this attitude. “Delusional. I don’t know why I keep coming back to that word.” Mrs. McCarthy sees a different side of Louie, the side that resists help from the many services the special education department at Wilbur Cross can provide him. Ms. Thompson also shares some of Mrs. McCarthy’s opinion: “I’ve told Louie that I think his aspirations are perhaps beyond him.”
My own thoughts on Louie waver somewhere in between unstoppable and crazy. All I know for certain is I’m nervous about November 2. To fall within range for Central, he has to more than double his SAT score. The signs of his disability are everywhere; even accessing his College Board account proves a problem. He forgets his password, and misspells his mother’s maiden name, the secret question that releases a forgotten password to the student. He has to reenter his social security number twice, three times, because copying long strings of numbers is difficult. “Focus on the questions at the beginning of each section,” I advise him in an e-mail the night before the test, knowing that the questions build in difficulty. “Don’t worry if you spend the whole time period working on the first half of the questions.” October is too late to learn new material; at this point learning better test taking strategies are the only option.
An option to circumvent the SAT score problem is Central’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). This program functions as a back-door entrance for students whose SAT scores aren’t up to par. Mr. Carberry, director of admissions at Central, explains that this program will consider SAT scores in the low 700s to mid 800s. According to Mr. Carberry, the EOP program is a five-week, free of charge “academic boot camp” for 50 admitted students. Harry Pacheco, the associate director of the EOP program at Central, explains the rigorous schedule: “breakfast at 7:30, 8:30-5:15 in classes, six to 10 study hall. Typically students are getting to bed between one and two a.m.” Mr. Pacheco says the goals of the program are to teach “discipline, time management, structure” as well as “enhance the student’s skills in the areas of English and mathematics.” Everyone who works with Louie agrees that this program is a great opportunity for him. Mr. Wilden thinks he is a “good candidate for the EOP program” because “he needs some way to become accustomed to the quality and volume of college work.” Louie himself is enthusiastic about the program and promises to write EOP on top of his Central application in big, bold letters. Still, the program’s not a guarantee; Louie’s junior-year scores are more than 200 points below the range for the EOP program.
The real option for improving Louie’s score is acquiring more time by registering for the SAT as a special needs student. But this gets to the heart of Louie’s problem: his resistance to self-identifying as a special needs student and accepting the help. “It’s not fair,” he says, “if I get more time and somebody else doesn’t and then, you know, I get into Central and they don’t.” I look at Louie and think he’s nuts. It’s not fair that I can read a short passage two — or three or even four — times faster than Louie. I try to explain this to him, but I don’t know how. “Everyone can do things at different speeds,” I venture. “That’s what’s not fair.”
Ms. Thompson offers one explanation of Louie’s extreme opposition to identifying himself as special needs. “As students get older and become aware of subtle differences they become aware they are in different classes. It becomes a sticking point.” A visit to Ms. Pellino’s self-contained classroom for Wilbur Cross’s most severely disabled students offers another. Ms. Pellino has seven students, four of whom are in wheelchairs and only two of whom are verbal. When I visited the classroom, the students are just finishing Activities for Daily Living — the morning exercise that teaches the bathroom routine. “Only a couple of the students understand it,” Ms. Pellino admits, “but we do it anyway.” Ms. Pellino has been at Wilbur Cross for ten years now, and most of the kids she started with are still in her classroom. “That’s what’s hard,” she explains. “Do I see big gains in these kids? No.” Besides the television and the occasional moan from Vince, a light-skinned black boy with a habit of distorting his mouth, the classroom is eerily quiet. Marvin, whom Ms. Pellino calls a flirt and who stares me up and down with sharp black eyes, rocks his head back and forth, causing his wheelchair to squeak. Maria, a new student from Mexico who is deaf and mute but doesn’t know sign language, practices waving “bye-bye.” For Louie, who plans to study law or political science in college and eventually wants to be a senator, to identify himself even slightly with these students would destroy all his dreams. Still, at my insistence, he takes one step in this direction and agrees to register for the SAT with extra time. “Whatever’s going to get me into Central,” he concedes.
Ms. Thompson thinks self-identifying as a special needs student for the SAT is a major step in the right direction because it will help admissions officers better interpret Louie’s score. If they know he is special needs, she reasons, the admissions office will cut him some slack. But Mr. Carberry, head of admissions at Central, disagrees. “We don’t look differently at the extra-time version of the SAT versus the regular version.” He continues, “SAT scores, GPA, we read them the same” for every applicant. And although he maintains that “no college can discriminate on behalf of special needs students” and Central does have “good support services and is navigable” he admits, “I don’t think it’s the best place” for students with disabilities.
When Mr. Carberry addresses prospective Wilbur Cross students at the high school’s auditorium, he looks imposing: a well-built black man wearing a classy tan suit, brown leather shoes, and a gold tie. Louie is the first to volunteer to circulate inquiry cards, open house post cards, a book mark, and a glossy brochure. Most of the 50 or so students at the information session look bored or annoyed when an announcement over the loudspeaker asks teachers who see students with hats to confiscate them and “not worry about giving them back.” But Louie is busy at work: asking Mr. Carberry questions about campus clubs, jumping up to open the locked door for latecomers, and filling out his information on the inquiry card that takes him two tries before doing it perfectly. When some of the cards get handed back to me — I’m the only other white person in the room besides Mr. Carberry’s assistant — Louie shakes his head and points to the pile at the front of the auditorium. Louie smiles at me, and I can see that he utterly trusts that I’m on his side against the admissions office, against doubtful special-education teachers, against hesitant Cross administrators. For a moment, I’m terrified by this responsibility. Meanwhile, Mr. Carberry warns Wilbur Cross students, “I’m the one who decides if you get admitted to Central or not.” And in private, Mr. Carberry warns me, “I’m looking for students who can survive Central.” That means no special consideration for Louie if his scores don’t improve.
Louie and his college counselor Mr. Wilden go ahead registering him for the SAT with extra time. But this paperwork should have been completed months ago and will only process in time to apply for the January test date. In November, he’ll have to take it with the regular time limits. And regarding January, for schools like Central with rolling admissions, Ms. Thompson explains that that test date might be too late.
With the SAT test out of the way until scores arrive on November 20, Louie dives into the remaining parts of the application: the personal essay, the teacher recommendations, and the transcript. He refuses to stop and reevaluate whether jumping into a four-year college is the best idea. But everyone else has doubts. Louie’s mom, who did not attend college herself, strongly resists his plans. Back in September he explained to me, “I don’t think my mom’s really going to help, so I’m stuck right now with if I should let her get engaged in it.” He added, “I’m doing fine on my own.” Throughout the fall Louie has worked to obtain Independent Status from the state of Connecticut, which would give him money to pay for the college application fees on his own. By November, his mom has come around to the idea of Gateway, a two-year community college within commuting distance from his home. According to Mrs. Perrault, his junior year English teacher, “His mom said it’s Gateway or nothing.” His college counselor Mr. Wilden explains, “I’m trying not to get in the middle of a fight over Gateway between him and his mom.” Still, Mr. Wilden, Ms. Thompson, and Ms. McCarthy all admit that they think going to a two-year community college might be the better option for Louie — at least at first. “I’m not so sure he should jump right into a four-year school,” Mr. Wilden says. “I’m sure he has no idea what’s coming.”
Senior administrator Robert Anderson is the most concerned about Louie’s future. “Without support he’ll end up as a major statistic,” he says bluntly. He informs me that means dead, jailed, or institutionalized. I nod gravely, remembering Louie’s dream of being a state senator. Those three places are very far from the senate floor. With a background in clinical social work and a 25-year career in education, Mr. Anderson has worked closely with Louie throughout high school. “He’s a very interesting individual,” Anderson says, “but you’ve got to understand what you’re dealing with.” He stares at me and asks, “Have you ever worked with a student like Louie before?” I quickly rattle off my credentials: I’m interested in educational policy, once I visited a school for autistic students, in high school I worked at a summer program for students who failed the MCAS — the Massachusetts state test one must pass to graduate. “And a lot of them didn’t speak any English, so I had to speak …” I trail off. “No.” I admit. “I’ve never worked with a student like Louie before.” I try to redeem myself. “But it seems like we’re making progress. We’ve been working a lot on SAT prep.” Mr. Anderson looks unimpressed. “With Louie, you always have to ask: show me the results of this progress.”
Over the past four years, Mr. Anderson has witnessed firsthand how Louie’s disability has affected both his academic and social development. Mr. Anderson explains that, throughout high school, Louie has had a number of “sexual incidents.” When I look confused, Mr. Anderson clarifies, “like you’re in the dental chair with your pants unbuckled.” He continues, “masturbating in public, rubbing up on girls on the track team…after the first few I just stopped listening to his side of the story. He’s never owned it.” I can feel my face going hot, and I have trouble concealing my discomfort. This is a side of Louie I’ve never seen before. Feebly I suggest that Louie is just naïve and Mr. Anderson admits, “It could be naiveté.” But he points out that Louie is 18 now and, naïve or not, that type of behavior could get him into serious trouble.
Yet Mr. Anderson is still optimistic about Louie’s future. “He could be a good father, a good husband, a good citizen,” he says. Mr. Anderson’s goal for Louie this year: “redirection onto a reality track by June.” He advises me to research career assessment tests and other alternative tracks for Louie.
Completely blind to these “alternative tracks,” Louie spends November working away at his personal essay. “He’s been sweating over it,” Mrs. Perrault laughs. He’s chosen to write about the time his house caught on fire and how this experience helped him learn that life has “ups and downs.” I remember admissions officer Mr. Carberry’s warning to Wilbur Cross seniors last month: “I don’t want to have to read a lot of junk.” But with help from Mrs. Perrault and the GEAR UP tutors, his essay is polished. When describing a childhood memory of his aunt cooking back in Jamaica, the essay reads, “she would combine the different kinds of herbs and spices and let me approach the big black pot that seemed to me like a witch’s cauldron.” Louie admits that the metaphor of a “witch’s cauldron” came from one of the other Yale tutors. I didn’t need him to tell me that.
Getting teacher recommendations, however, is not going as smoothly. Mrs. Perrault has agreed to write one of them, but Louie can’t find a second teacher. And even Mrs. Perrault admits that he had to hound her for weeks to get her to agree. Her problem: “I don’t know what to do about the academic part” of the recommendation. When it comes to the question of “describing the student,” Mrs. Perrault gushes that Louie is “confident, tenacious, inquisitive, quirky, helpful, respectful, and eager.” But she doesn’t have many positive things to say about his academic achievements. “I’m stuck… I don’t want to lie but I don’t want to hold him back.” In writing these recommendations, her own integrity and reputation as a teacher is on the line. Plus, she adds, “I don’t want to see him get in and then get kicked out.” For the questions evaluating his academic skills, she ends up giving him scores of two or three out of six possible points. As of the end of November, he still hasn’t secured a second teacher recommendation.
The last element of the application is the transcript, which Wilbur Cross will send directly to Central. Louie’s GPA is a 2.11, which translates to a C average. Ms. Thompson comments that for someone like Louie, that’s pretty good. Still, Louie isn’t satisfied. “I hoped my GPA would be a 3.0.” A 2.11 might be good enough for Central; the admissions office requires a minimum of a 2.0 for incoming freshman. Yet, the GPA of a special needs student is trickier to interpret than the GPA of a regular student at Wilbur Cross. Mrs. McCarthy explains the modified grading that often applies to special needs students. “You’re not supposed to fail special education students in regular classes,” she says. But, she continues, this often creates a problem for teachers, especially when the special needs student has a lot of modifications that reduce the amount of work he or she is expected to do. “There’s the problem of giving special needs students C’s when you are failing others who are doing more work.” An 11th grade English teacher who overhears our conversation in the teacher’s lounge nods her head in agreement. So when you see Louie’s 2.11 GPA, really that means he has earned an average anywhere between a C and an F.
With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, time is running out before Louie must mail in his completed application. When Mr. Carberry visited from the admissions office over a month ago, he was already advising that, “now’s the time to apply.” He warned that Central generally begins wait-listing people for housing as early as mid-November, because only 30% of students can receive on campus housing. Furthermore, the Central undergraduate catalogue on admissions advises “academically qualified students with special needs are encouraged to apply to the University early.” With Louie’s academic qualifications continually called into question, the earlier he mails his application in, the better.
On November 20, Louie’s SAT scores from his second test are available online. Nervously, I log into his account to which he gave me access. I forget his log-in name and then enter his password incorrectly twice. As the red exclamation sign indicating a mistake appears on the screen, I remember the frustrating hour and a half Louie and I spent back in September trying to access his account. I wonder how much of his life feels like an encounter with this red exclamation sign.
Finally, I access his scores from November 2. His math score has stayed constant at a 210. His critical reading score has decreased from a 270 to a 210. His writing score has decreased from a 290 to a 270. I am stunned. To the Central admissions office, Louie now has a cumulative score (math and critical reading only) of 420 — little more than half of what is expected for the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). And that program is for the students whose SAT scores don’t make the cut.
I know that Louie has another chance to improve his scores in January using extra time. Still, by then Central might not bother to look at his new scores, especially when confronted with a 2.11 GPA, a polished but somewhat clichéd essay, and only one ambivalent teacher recommendation. I think about Melissa Pellino, the teacher in Wilbur Cross’s self-contained classroom, working with the same kids year after year, seeing the same backward steps just after a student has mastered some aspect of Activities in Daily Living. “There’s always a regression over the weekend,” she explains. “I’m dreading Thanksgiving break.” The first time I visited her classroom, all I could see was difference between Louie and her students. “Louie is dedicated, motivated and,” I thought most importantly, “able to learn the material I’m teaching him.” But now, staring at Louie’s own regression — scores that are even lower after months of hard work — I begin to grasp the severity of his disability. Remembering Robert Anderson’s challenge: “show me the results of this progress,” I seriously wonder whether Louie has successfully learned anything from me this semester. Or, I rephrase, whether I’ve successfully taught him anything.
When school resumes after Thanksgiving break, Louie stops coming to GEAR UP on Tuesday afternoons. The first time, Mrs. Thompson is confused when I ask about him. “He was here earlier today,” she replies. When I tell her about Louie’s scores, she shrugs. “He’s probably avoiding you.” For the first time, I consider why Louie would want to work with me, a college student with no real experience in education other than being good at her own. There was no way, I realize now, that I could have helped him more than a special education counselor like Mrs. McCarthy. Yet he resisted her help and sought out mine. I think about when he smiled at me at the Central informational session. It was a smile of alliance — the two of us against the educational world. For a while, his image reflected in my eyes was everything he wanted to see: the belief that he is dedicated, motivated, able to learn, ready for college. I guess he worries that now his new SAT scores have destroyed my belief in that Louie. He wouldn’t be right, but he wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
A few weeks later, I receive an e-mail from him, informing me that he’s sent in the first half of Central’s application. He also hopes that my article about him went OK. He doesn’t want to read it, though, and he doesn’t seem to want to work with me anymore either. I keep coming to GEAR UP on Tuesdays, and when he’s not there I work with other students. They are often smarter, but never as determined. Maybe he’s found someone else like me through some other tutoring program, someone who believes in him. I don’t care as much anymore if Louie gets into Central because, honestly, I’m not sure that’s what’s best for him right now. Mostly what I hope for Louie is that someday he lives up to the image of himself that he sees reflected in other hopeful people’s eyes. I hope, ultimately, that he finds a place for himself where he doesn’t have to fight the odds to gain acceptance.