PEN: Learning Specialist’s Panel in San Francisco

First of all let me tell you a little bit about PEN. The acronym stands for Parents Education Network, PEN, a coalition of parents collaborating with educators, students and the community to empower and bring academic success to students with learning and attention difficulties.  If you live in the San Francisco Bay area and have children with these challenges, this is a lively group, well worth your time and energy.

PEN offered it’s last Speaker event of this season on Friday, May 14, 2010.  A panel of high school learning specialists shared their experiences of working with high school students who have learning and attention challenges.  The panelists and the institutions they represented were:  Susan Coe Adams, Marin Academy; Constance Clark, Immaculate Conception Academy: Karen Houck, Drew School: Denise Olivera, Gateway High School and Charles P. Roth, Bay School of San Francisco.  This is a summary of their points of view.

This discussion focused primarily on Grade Nine, though there were references to high school students in general. All of the schools are college preparatory.

Admission:  Some schools require documentation on the prospective students learning or attention challenges.  One school distills the documentation and develops a learning profile on challenged children. They have the student confirm the information on the learning profile and then the student takes it to his or her teachers as part of a self-advocacy program.  Some schools have workshops on study skills, how the brain works and time management at the beginning of Grade Nine to help the students integrate into high school.

Parents when interviewing a school would be best served by first checking the school’s website to see if the profile of the school fits their child.  Go to admission open houses and be sure to visit the resource center.

At the interview these are some questions that might be asked.  a: what services are offered including information on a resource program. b. what are the qualifications of the resource program staff.  c. how do teachers teach: lecture, visual aids etc. d. how is the child assessed: projects, homework, tests. e. How many students have learning issues? f. Can a student have a waiver for a subject?  g. how many students leave because of their learning difference. h. Ask  for contact information of parents who have kids with similar issues. Be sure to make a list of your questions and give them to the admissions director.

Most of the panelists felt that students with ADD or ADHD would be best served if they were given psychological testing. In similar kind, most of the panelists felt that a dyslexic student and their teachers would benefit from the information gained from an Educational Therapist.

 1.        Support systems: 

 Some schools have programs where Grade 12 learning or attention challenged students support the incoming Grade Nine students with like situations. This program seems very supportive especially for those Grade Nine  students who more recently learned about their challenge and are  embarrassed by it.  Peer support seems effective. 

Grade 12 students also mentor in chemistry and writing.  Learning how to plan and organizing material is often top on the agenda.

Learning specialists help students become advocates for themselves.  Some schools run training programs for this purpose.

 2.    Homework:

All of the panelist’s schools have homework which can vary from 2-3 hours for students with no learning or attention challenges. This can mean almost double the time for the challenged students.

Learning specialists need to re-inforce with the student that they will have to work harder. 

Some parents choose to have tutors help with homework. Others look to Books on Tape.   Parents and their kids need to plan how homework will be accomplished.  Some parents use bench marks. 

Most schools post homework on-line.


Yes, they are useful tools. Parents need to control their use at home so that     homework time is strictly homework. One solution offered was having the student in the kitchen doing homework.

3.   Parents access to teachers, supervisors etc

One person in the school needs to become the central connection with parents. Information can be garnered from the Resource Specialist overseeing each grade level, sometimes a care team. Other sources are E-mail,weekly meeting of faculty to discuss students who are facing problems. 

One advisor has each of his challenged students send an e-mail once a week to his teachers checking if he is up to date with all his assignments.

4.  Most panelists seemed to agree that it is not realistic for a school to provide the following for learning and attention students:  modification of the curriculum, tutors, direct services, therapy, daily communication with parents about homework.   Remember: these schools are all college preparatory.

5.  Parents can support their children by a:  helping them become advocates for themselves, b. make sure they understand how they learn, c. provide a safe environment and build confidence finding ways for the child to be successful, d. encourage them to join support groups for themselves eg: SafeVoices for students, or Project Eye to Eye:

Challenges learning and attention students need to master during high school so they can be successful.  a. Executive functions:  planning and organizing material, handling effectively a daytimer. highlighting b. making transitions, c. finding ways to deal with dense text books, d. self advocacy, e. how to approach long projects.

 Book recommended:  Primal Teen, Barbara Strauch

Comment:  If I were a parent with a child who has recently discovered he or she is dyslexic I would be both grateful for this panel discussion and perhaps overwhelmed at the task before both the child and the parent.

What she did with a reading disability

This article on Ann Farris was published in March, 2010.  It is written by  Daniel J. Vance

 What she did with a reading disability.

For years, Ann Farris of San Francisco, California, tried keeping a secret hidden: she wasn’t particularly gifted in comprehending what she read.

“You can fool a heck of a lot of people when you’re smart,” said 73-year-old Farris in a telephone interview. “I gravitated towards opera beginning at age 11 because I found out that classical music and opera allowed my brain to rest. My mother took me to the symphony as a child. I could float with the music. By the end the concert I was a happy kid. I really wanted to be around it a lot because afterwards I could read and understand what I was reading. It made my life better.”

Eventually, Farris learned she had a learning disability in reading comprehension.

Yet she has succeeded in her chosen profession. She worked in musical theater from ages 18-24 before entering the world of opera. Her first big break came as the production manager for the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, and while there worked with the Bolshoi Opera, Hamburg State Opera, and Royal Swedish Opera, among others. Later, she was on staff with the San Francisco Opera and managed Opera America, the international service organization of professional opera companies. Ultimately, she became program director of the Opera-Musical Theater Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, and produced the Expo 86 Royal Bank World Festival.

At the National Endowment for the Arts, her learning disability became all too apparent. “It was a desk job,” said Farris. “Suddenly, I was sitting there reading applications. It was all paper and reading and writing, and I was plenty unhappy. Yet, I had found my way through the Yale School of Drama with this.”

How? In college, she had “hung out” with people who talked all the time about what they were reading for classes. She listened intently, and listened to class lecturers. And she had learned from an early age to write everything down she heard.

“I was never a brilliant student, but a B student,” she said. “I wasn’t comprehending the big words, but I would get concepts.”

Five years ago, she tested at a grade 3 reading comprehension level, but claims to have improved that to grade 9 using certain imaging techniques. “The reason I couldn’t comprehend was because I wasn’t imaging,” she said. You can learn more about her personal story at


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