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JUNE 2007

First Citywide Special Education Conference Launched By Education Update & The City College Of NY

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

Stating that “one of the most unfailing tests of a civilization lies in how it treats its special needs population,” Dr. Pola Rosen, founder and publisher of Education Update
, kicked off the first citywide Special Education Conference at CCNY’s School of Education last month. A cast of luminaries, all renowned in their fields of study, shed light on the scientific, policy, and educational perspectives of living and learning with a disability, while breakout groups allowed participants an opportunity to question and dialogue more deeply with the speakers.

On the policy front, Commissioner Matthew Sapolin, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) since 2002, explained that his office was created in 1973 to “insure that the rights of people with disabilities were included in programs and services implemented by our city.” While disability rights have been advanced since his office was established, Sapolin conceded that service breaches still exist, noting that he is eager to “bridge gaps, facilitate dialogue with the administration, and where possible, to provide clarity.” Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, originally elected to her position in 2001 and formerly adviser to three mayors, added an urgent note to the policy discussion. “The state of special education in the city…is in crisis,” she decried. Due to recent dismissals or retirements of 1000 Department of Education (DOE) evaluators who had processed special education requests, children are not receiving needed accommodations. Gotbaum further castigated DOE for its “unacceptable unresponsiveness” to parents of children with special needs, urging the Department to redouble its communication efforts and pledging to help parents feel “that someone is there for them.”

A series of distinguished speakers offered a compelling perspective on efforts that are now underway to study, remediate, and educate students afflicted with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and other learning disorders. Dr. Jess Shatkin, Director of Education and Training at the NYU Child Study Center, provided an overview of ADHD research, noting that it is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder of childhood (one in 20 worldwide) and that three to seven percent of U.S. school children are affected with the disability (boys outnumber girls nine to one). Most encouraging on the scientific front are recent genetic findings indicating that ADHD runs in families as well as neuro-imaging findings that clearly indicate deficiencies in the brain make-up of individuals with ADHD. While these findings may provide a foundation for future scientific cures, currently both behavioral methods (parent management training and organizational skills management) and medication (“most effective in focusing attention and decreasing hyperactivity”) are effective treatments that are helping people to succeed.

Thomas A. Brown, Ph.D., Associate Director of the Yale Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders at the Yale University School of Medicine, reinforced Shatkin’s research findings, noting that medications work effectively in 80 percent of those diagnosed with ADHD because they harness the brain’s complicated neural networks to sustain the individual’s focus, much as a conductor helps a symphony orchestra to manage the actions of individual musicians. Brown definitively debunked the once-held theory that ADHD is a willpower problem, concluding that, through medications that target the chemistry of the brain, scientists can now successfully “manage the management system” of the brain and ameliorate all of its key “executive functions” (activation, focus, effort, emotions, memory and action).

Dr. Shatkin also briefly discussed the latest scientific breakthroughs in learning disabilities (LD), explaining that researchers are now focusing on abnormal cell migration and blood flow aberrations in the brain to account for dyslexia. As with ADHD, these “profound findings” may prove fruitful for scientific intervention, and ultimately perhaps a cure. Two young men, Brown University graduate David Flink and Dalton School senior Sam Koplewicz, discussed their personal struggles with dyslexia, which led Flink to found Project Eye-to-Eye, a national mentoring program whereby college and high school students serve as tutors, role models and mentors to younger LD/ADHD students, helping to empower them to find success. “It’s a long and hard tunnel, but there’s definitely an end. Struggling makes it that much better; you come out stronger in the end,” summed up Koplewicz, who has started an Eye to Eye program at the Dalton school to pair LD/ADHD high school students with similarly challenged middle school children.

Dr. Lynda Katz, president of Landmark College, discussed her current work in the area of “frustrated brilliance,” a term she has coined to describe individuals who are gifted/talented (as defined by an IQ of 130 or above) and have ADHD and/or LD. In many cases, these students get labeled as underachieving or lazy, and all too often they struggle with work incompletion and unrewarding academic experiences. Katz discussed intervention strategies which she found successful in dramatically reversing the academic declines of such “twice gifted” students, providing uplifting case studies and urging educators to “be sensitive to these young people. Don’t lose some of the most talented minds we have.”

On the subject of autism, several speakers shared their models for success in working with children who have this pervasive disorder that impairs all aspects of development—medical, psychological, educational, speech, fine motor, and gross motor. Dr. Cecilia McCarton, founder and Executive Director of the private McCarton School serving children with autism spectrum disorders, reeled off the alarming statistics: one in 150 children is currently diagnosed with autism, a disorder that is now more prevalent than childhood cancer, diabetes and AIDS. “We’re in the midst of something that is growing that we don’t fully understand,” cautioned McCarton, who advocated for treatment modalities that are comprehensive (multi-disciplinary), intense, consistent, and integrated. McCarton’s own program uses Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and incorporates speech therapy, occupational therapy, socialization opportunities, and reinforcement of learning through field trips, while requiring every child’s educational plan to be rigorously supported by data.

A very different educational model for children with autism was presented by Dr, Shirley Cohen, Professor in the Department of Special Education at Hunter College, who has launched a new inclusion program within the NYC public schools. Cohen’s program combines four higher functioning autistic children with eight typically developing children and seeks to stimulate peer relationships, social/communicative competence, self-regulation, and individual adaptations. Noting that “if you don’t do inclusion well you’re not helping anyone,” Cohen was quick to point out that her model doesn’t work for all autistic children and there has been no formal research program yet to evaluate its effectiveness.

Capping off the morning presentations, Dr. Pola Rosen presented a first-time award for Outstanding Special Educator of the Year to Dr. Bonnie Brown, Superintendent of District 75. Brown—a tireless advocate for special education during a thirty-year career in which she has worked as teacher, staff developer, and administrator—noted that “there will always be challenges in special education. Thirty years ago, we got classes out of the basement. Now there are problems of equity and resources.” Ever the optimist, Brown lauded the reopening of vocational shops and public-private partnerships, both exciting advances that are opening up employment and educational opportunities for individuals struggling with disabilities. “We have a commitment that all children will be treated with dignity and respect so that they can reach their individual potential,” she concluded passionately. For the special education advocates in the room—scientists, policymakers, educators, parents, and those confronting a personal disability— Brown’s words served as a battle cry for continued research, advocacy, hard work and compassion on behalf of those in our society who often have no ability to speak for themselves.#



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