Editor’s note: Christopher Gergen and Stephen Martin are both affiliated with Greensboro’s Center for Creative Leadership.
A major decision last month by the U.S. Supreme Court requires public schools to deliver higher-quality education for students with learning disabilities, putting the spotlight on the need for more innovative ways to assist young people who learn differently.
In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the Supreme Court sided with a Colorado boy with autism, but students with a range of learning differences can find themselves in the margins in our educational systems. In North Carolina, some groundbreaking efforts are under way to address this issue.
Diplomas at Risk, a landmark 2013 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, found that 5.8 million students in U.S. schools have disabilities of some kind. Of those, 40 percent have Specific Learning Disabilities, or SLDs. This classification includes dyslexia, auditory and visual processing disorders, dyscalculia (trouble with math concepts), and dysgraphia (problems with letters and writing), These issues can be hard to spot, and students with SLDs are frequently misunderstood or held to lower standards, despite the fact that they typically have IQs that are average or above average.
Of those 2.2 million students with SLDs, the report found, just 68 percent graduate with regular high school diplomas. The remainder either drop out of school or earn a certificate or special diploma that does not prepare them well for higher education or the workforce.
The challenges created by learning disabilities of all kinds – and the lost potential in our communities – are staggering. U.S. Census Bureau data shows that about half of working age adults with learning disabilities are either unemployed or not in the labor force at all, double the percentage of those without learning disabilities.
The situation is improving somewhat as awareness of learning disabilities and strategies for addressing them increase. According to the Diplomas at Risk report, the dropout rate nationally for students with learning disabilities fell from 35 percent in 2002 to 19 percent a decade later. Still, that translates into hundreds of thousands of adults being left behind in an economy that punishes a lack of education.
It’s a significant issue for North Carolina.
The Diplomas at Risk report shows that an average of 78 percent of all high school students in North Carolina graduate. But just 57 percent of those with disabilities do. That differential of 21 points isn’t the worst in the nation (Mississippi has a 52 point gap), but it does indicate a real opportunity for improvement.
Several North Carolina institutions are rising to the challenge by nurturing leadership skills in youth with learning differences – a category that extends beyond SLDs to include attention-deficit disorders and other learning styles that are atypical. A $170,000 grant from the Geneva, Switzerland-based Oak Foundation, which has an office in Chapel Hill, seeks to engage these students in new ways.
Greensboro’s Center for Creative Leadership is spearheading this work, which involves the creation of two digital leadership development solutions for 15- to 24-year-olds. These online tools are highly interactive, from font styles to carefully packaged portions of information, for students who might not see themselves as leaders if their learning challenges have caused them to struggle in school. Partners in this project, which is just getting off the ground, include East Carolina University’s STEPP Program and Fayetteville State University’s Bronco STAR Program.
In a related and more expansive effort, ECU and Fayetteville State, along with Appalachian State University, are also part of the College STAR (Supporting Transition Access and Retention) program, a UNC system initiative designed to promote academic success for students with a wide range of learning differences. With funding primarily from the Oak Foundation and the N.C. GlaxoSmithKline Foundation, this program leverages Universal Design for Learning principles. UDL draws on pioneering approaches, such as specially designed instructional materials and “flipped classrooms” that make lectures available by video or text and reserve class time for discussion and collaborative projects.
North Carolina is seeing “really encouraging results,” from College STAR, says ECU associate professor Sarah Williams, who leads the program.
Research shows that just 34 percent of learning-disabled students nationally who enroll in four-year colleges complete a degree. At ECU, however, 83 percent of students with learning disabilities served by the STEPP Program have either graduated or are making steady progress toward their degrees. More than half of them currently have a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
Williams is pursuing grants that will allow the College STAR program to extend its reach and impact to colleges and universities throughout the country. That would be a big win for North Carolina and especially those for whom our traditional education system has never really worked.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.