Problems from Undiagnosed Learning Disabilities

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High school senior Steven Zupon is poised to graduate with honors this spring and is eagerly awaiting acceptance letters from universities all over the country. But Steven says for most of his academic career, he was a very different kind of student.

Steven Zupon: I knew I was a jerk, I wasn't that nice to people and I was a bully.

And he says he had lots of trouble concentrating in class, so instead he generally goofed off. In 3rd grade, his parents transferred him to private school for the extra attention they thought teachers there might be able to give him. But only four years later, his mother Jill Zupon says the private school didn't want him any more.

Jill Zupon: When Gilmore Academy had said, 'he's just lazy. He's lazy and he's a goof off. He's a class clown. He doesn't come here to learn.'

It wasn't until Steven's parents took him to an outside psychologist that his ADD - Attention Deficit Disorder - was finally diagnosed.

Jill Zupon: He said, 'why am I seeing this child at 12? You had to noticed.'

Steven's late diagnosis is rather common, says Ellen Fishman, executive director at the Learning Disabilities Association of Cuyahoga County. She says typically adults don't notice something's wrong in a student until the child has fallen 2 years behind in school. By then, she says most children have learned to adapt and mask their disability.

Ellen Fishman: I think kids would rather be in trouble and be the class clown rather have their peers think that they're stupid. And many of these kids do in fact do think they're stupid. And as they get older, and the gap continues to grow in terms of what they are able to do in relation to their peers, there really are other thing - social issues, isolation issues - that become pretty apparent.

Fishman says there's plenty of research on how to treat learning disabilities and living in a wealthy district doesn't necessarily guarantee disabled children the best education.

Ellen Fishman: It's a repertoire of things one can do. So they may do some things in a school and not do it in another school.

She says there's often disparity between districts in their effectiveness at educating learning disabled children. So she works with parents to try and find schools that meet their expectations. Steven Zupon says he never found what he needed in the public school system where he lived. He says the education plan drawn up for him by his district and state wasn't strictly followed by the educators on the ground.

Steven Zupon: They said I was going to have some time on homework. Like if there was something I didn't understand, I was supposed to have some extra days to work on it. That never happened; a late assignment was a late assignment.

So by junior high, Steven "The Class Clown" had evolved into "Steven the Bully." By 9th grade, his parents gave him two options: boarding school or Lawrence School, a local private school specializing in learning disabilities.

Steven Zupon: I just thought it was going to be crazy. I thought the worst thing in the world was to put a bunch of ADD kids in the same room. It just wasn't logical to me at first.

But the small class sizes and specific skills on how to learn were exactly what Steven says he needed. Lawrence School Head Mimi Mayor says the school's teaching styles are augmented by the building layout and special classrooms of the new upper school, the K-12 institution recently opened.

Mimi Mayor: They need a specialized delivery of the education system. They need small classes, they need individualized attention. They need multi-sensory teaching and learning, which means they need visual cues, auditory cues, and the opportunity to get the body involved in the process of learning.

Mayor says if public school districts were so inclined they could mimic the philosophy Lawrence School has developed over the past 30 years. Steven's mother Jill says they should, because it was teaching Steven how to overcome his learning disabilities that finally saved her son.

Jill Zupon: I feel he no longer has a disability. They have given him the tools he needs to prepare him for college.

In his final semester of high school, Steven says all he has to do now is pick which university he'll attend - Boston, North Carolina's High Point, or Ohio's Miami. Lisa Ann Pinkerton, 90.3.

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