By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Jane Komperda is just learning to hear vowels and consonants in her head. She's been paying close attention to the whisper and buzz certain letters make as they're mouthed so that she can sound them out while reading. Until now, she'd never thought about how words beginning with the letter "c" have an "s" sound when followed by an "i," an "e" or a "y," as in cinder, ceilingor cycle. She's also memorizing little tricks to help her spell. She'd never really understood that if a word contains a long vowel sound, it should end with "ge" rather than "dge," as in page (not padge).
With these newly acquired skills, she recently finished Because of Winn-Dixie, a children's story of a ten-year-old girl who finds companionship in a stray dog. It was a major accomplishment for this sixteen-year-old who just started her junior year of high school.
Jane is very proud of herself. In the past year, her ability to decode words has gone from a third-grade to a fifth-grade level, thanks to private tutoring. It's a small gain that has been a long time in coming. Throughout middle school, Jane languished in a special-education class, where she received virtually no direct reading instruction. Yet just before entering high school, she was told she no longer needed special services. Administrators in the St. Vrain Valley School District didn't quite know what to make of Jane. She's intelligent, articulate and mature beyond her years. Talking to her, you'd never know she struggles with anything, let alone dyslexia. After all, her reading comprehension is at the high school level. District officials like to cite Jane's "proficient" scores on the Colorado Student Assessment Program and good grades as proof that she doesn't need anything beyond what they're already offering. But the fact is, Jane's reading ability has yet to catch up to her IQ.
"Being so smart and being able to compensate so well, people don't see me as having a disability," Jane says. "If I were in a wheelchair, people would accommodate me."
In order to qualify for special education, students must take intelligence and academic-achievement tests. If the results reveal a discrepancy between intelligence and ability to progress academically, federal special-education laws require school districts to provide an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, that spells out the services and accommodations needed for students to succeed in school.
Jane has had an IEP since she was in the second grade. Thinking she had something wrong with her vision, her parents had taken her to an eye doctor. The ophthalmologist determined that Jane did need glasses, but there was something more: She was dyslexic. The diagnosis explained much about the Komperdas' daughter, including why she didn't talk until she was well over two and why she had been a half-year behind in kindergarten.
Dyslexia weakened Jane's auditory sequencing and memory, causing her to struggle with reading, because she can't distinguish the sounds that make up words. But even though dyslexics often invert letters, it's not a vision problem. "They auditorily can't link which sound is 'b' or 'd,' for example," explains Robin McEvoy, a well-respected developmental neuropsychologist who works with dyslexics.
The condition is often inherited, and in Jane's case, her mother, Cindy, is mildly dyslexic. Her younger sister and brother were also recently diagnosed with dyslexia. And if Jane's struggles are any indication, they, too, may face problems in the St. Vrain schools.
Jane's real problems began when she entered Sunset Middle School. That's when she began following LANGUAGE!, a literacy curriculum developed by Longmont-based educational publisher Sopris West. Jane attended regular classes for every subject but English, spending that period in the "resource room," where approximately fifteen students with disabilities ranging from autism to Down syndrome went to get additional help. The 54-unit LANGUAGE! program, which contains lessons on everything from phonemic awareness and phonics to semantics and syntax, is supposed to bring students up to grade level in three years, with eighteen units taught annually. "The curriculum's multilevel approach facilitates implementation ease, allowing students in the same level to work cooperatively in small groups while advancing through the lessons," says the company's Web site. "In addition, direct instruction and independent practice also play primary roles in each student's learning progress."
But there was none of that for Jane. "We read short stories like Jack and Jill, and from those, we'd have spelling lists. There was no one-on-one instruction with the teacher, and nothing was individualized to help each of the students with their learning," she recalls.
By the end of the eighth grade, the class had fallen far short of Sopris's eighteen-units-per-year plan, instead covering that many units in three years. But Jane's mother was none the wiser. She assumed Jane and the class were progressing as promised. "I got reports that said she was doing great, and her grades were good," Cindy says. "I had faith that they knew what they were doing. Everything looked kosher until she got to high school and they said she didn't need services anymore," Cindy says.
She knew her daughter was still far below grade level in reading, so Cindy was shocked when she heard the news during an IEP meeting before Jane's freshman year. The Sunset Middle School psychologist had averaged Jane's communication, spelling, reading and math scores from a set of standardized tests and determined that she no longer qualified for special education. Jane's extra efforts to compensate for her dyslexia had gotten her nowhere. "They said she'd need accommodations, but no special education and no IEP," Cindy says. "That meant nothing, because accommodations aren't enforceable without an IEP."