Johnny Fernandez was worried. He sat at his desk each day, hoping nobody noticed he was only pretending to read. "I felt like I was cheating," he said. The Portland fifth grader has dyslexia, and thick chapter books were a jumble of words for a student two years behind in reading. His mother wondered how he would survive middle school.
A landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (on March 21) just raised the bar for how schools educate students like Johnny. The court ruled that educational programs for children with disabilities must be "appropriately ambitious," wisely overturning a lower-court standard of "merely more than de minimis" (Latin for "too minor to merit consideration.")
What will "appropriately ambitious" look like for Oregon's nearly 77,000 students with disabilities?
Currently, our system does not prepare diverse learners for success. One quarter of our capable children with conditions such as dyslexia, ADHD and autism are chronically absent, which leads to low reading performance, discipline issues, and dropping out. Students with disabilities have among the state's lowest on-time graduation rates.
Most of these children spend at least 80% of their day in general education classrooms, where educators frequently don't receive the training or tools to support them. In fact, Portland Public School teachers rank these children their #1 unmet professional development need.
No one clears the bar with a rickety pole. Children who struggle to read, write and fit in need solid tools to achieve standards. We must (1) equip teachers with tools that engage diverse learners; (2) provide effective strategies for using those tools, and (3) elevate school climate to normalize what it means to learn differently. Children should not be embarrassed to squeeze a fidget (a stress-relief toy) or don headphones to help them stay calm or focus while reading.
As executive director of Oregon's only nonprofit that partners with schools to make learning more accessible for children with disabilities, I've seen what ambitious standards can accomplish for determined kids like Johnny.
The Shadow Project develops SuperSensory Literacy Spaces, compact, multisensory libraries filled with tailored books, sensory tools that strengthen self-regulation and focus, and audio libraries that make books come alive. By 'reading with his ears' and following the highlighted text on a screen, Johnny advanced nearly two grade levels in under a year. Now a sixth grader, Johnny recently brought home his first "A" in English and plans to go to college.
Let's raise expectations and show we mean it. With supported teachers and appropriate tools, more Oregon children like Johnny can soar to new heights.