Dsylexic students give advice on getting into college

In early January, 2011, Parents Education Network (PEN) held their annual workshop featuring five PEN students with learning challenges who have been successful in gaining acceptance to different colleges and universities throughout the US. All of them have one or more learning challenges including dyslexia, ADD and audio processing.  The event was chaired by Eli Kersh-Oliva, program director for PEN which includes coordination of the SAFE Program*.  He posed questions and the following summarizes some of panel experiences.

Which colleges/universities are you attending?

  • University of Southern California
  • Mills College
  • Walla Walla
  • University of Iowa
  • Community College

When did you decide you wanted to go to college?

  • In  Grade V11
  • In Junior year in high school
  • When I was a little kid
  • When I knew what I wanted to study: fashion
  • After a gap year

Things they considered when choosing a college.

  • wanted a small school because I needed one to one attention.  And, wanted a well rounded
    liberal arts education.
  • applied everywhere, was good advocate for myself, looked to see what fit me best, looked for a person who would invest time with me.
  • looked for a small college and structured LD (learning difference) programs.
  • took a gap year after high school and then chose a community college.  I am not sure where I want to focus my education and need good learning support.
  • I have a passion, fashion, and that propelled me to be interested in college.

When did you disclose you had a learning difference?

  • Wrote about it in my application and then weeded out schools who weren’t interested.
    Checked out LD resources and asked what accommodations they offer. During the application process I was worried about losing my parents support at home as I have to have everything read to me. I also use Kurtzweil, a speech reader software. I chose Whitman where the Dean told all my professors about my learning challenge.
  • I wasn’t afraid of disclosing my learning difference.   If they aren’t willing to both help me and give me accommodations then I knew it was not the right school for me.
  • I went to a small school before Mills to gain confidence that I could be an advocate for myself.  Then, I was ready to apply to Mills.
  • At a community college you don’t have to jump through hoops for LD support.  I also use
    the Intel Reader.
  • I mentioned my learning difference in my application.  At Iowa State they are very helpful and take the extra step to be sure I am successful.

What special technology do you use and/or how did you build community at school?

  • I use Kurtzweil, they gave me double time for an exam which I take in another room and am given a calculator.
  • I have available through the college an I-Pod, Kindle, Intel Reader and Pens that record what is being taught.
  • At college we created community:  Learning Styles Coalition.  We are involved in Project Eye to Eye, a national program developing a coalition of mentoring programs for students labeled with learning disabilities. Now, fifteen of us are mentoring in the Walla Walla Schools.
  • I am in a large university (USC) and they have an extensive learning department.  Every class has a note taker and their notes are put on-line. We have a silent commons where kids who have learning disabilities can go twenty-four hours a day. Right next to it is the Writing Center where there are TA (technical assistants) in many fields to help us.  I get help with grammar from them.
  • In my college there is no assistive technology so I work with TA’s and professors and have
    extended time for exams.
  • At Mills there is a large population with learning disabilities.  I feel very comfortable talking about my issues.
  • At my community college there is very little LD community.  My friends who are LD and ADHD are my friends and we help each other.
  • I get extra time and I take classes (like sewing) to balance the academic work.   There  isn’t much community, except with my friends.

What are the differences between high school and college?

  • Time management is a big issue.  In school we were in class from 8:15 to 4 pm.  In college we may have only two classes a day.  I had to find a place where I could study.  And, I really learned to be a self advocate.  My Mum did most of that in high school.
  • At the beginning of each semester I offer to take my professors to coffee and tell them about my learning difference and what I need.
  • In high school I had close relationships with my teachers.  In college if you fail he won’t be there for you.  It’s up to you in college.  It’s very important to get the teacher in line with you.  Make sure they know your name and that you are trying.
  • In high school there was very little curriculum choice whereas in college you choose what you want to study. It’s very important to be passionate about what you choose to learn.
  • In college you have to take the entire experience in your hands.
  • Parents absence is a big change.  Those struggles makes you stronger, a better advocate for yourself.  A planner is essential.  Write it all down.
  • In college you are a face in the crowd.  To achieve you need to know the things you are good at and vice versa.  College can be a big change.
  • I learned you have to go to office hours and talk about the test with the professors. You can raise your grade by keeping in close contact with your professor.  And, be sure to get a reader if you need one.
  • Communicating in college with your class mates is very important.
  • Find people who study like you do.

Think back to your freshman year, what stands out as most important?

  • Self Advocacy is most important.  Parents, ask yourself, have you prepared your
    child to be a self advocate?
  • Take a light load in the 1st semester.  It’s a lot just to start college.
  • Make sure the professor cares about you.

What did your family do for you when you were in school?

  • I started to do panels in grade 7.
  • I did role playing with others to learn how to be a self advocate.
  • My parents called a teacher to tell them that I was coming to ask for something and asked that they give me space and listen to my request.
  • I learned to advocate for myself.
  • I was the black sheep of the family.  I never took my parents seriously.  I learned by being in a LD community.   Safe Voices, a project of PEN, taught me how to advocate.

Summary Comments:

  • Self advocacy is the key.
  • Check out who is the person in each class who sits in the front row.  They are generally a “know it all”. Get into their study group.  I don’t always disclose about my learning challenge at the outset with those groups. If there is a creative aspect I ask to do that.
  • Professors can be creepy.  They have brains but mostly no facial expressions. So get to know them.  If they deny you what you need, go to the administration and ask for intervention. Before you go, send the professor an e-mail with the request.  Once you have the denial written down, take it to the administration and ask for intervention. That ends that. Remember it’s your right to have accommodations.
  • Parents: let your kids make mistakes.
  • Students: have a good time at college, don ‘t study all the time.  Don’t let parents affect your thinking so that you lose your perspective.  Make friends with those who have similar study patterns.
  • In high school I was lost and only thought about girls.  In college I found my passion. Don’t worry about motivation, find the passion.
  • Gap year is a good way to become re-invigorated.

*SAFE (Student Advisors for Education) is a student community that strives to educate, mentor,
and support students, parents and teachers regarding the challenges and strengths of LD and ADHD students.  This unique group of teens is passionate about learning differently, pursuing
their fullest potential and spreading awareness of their capacity for academic and life success.

This blog is written by Ann Farris, a dyslexic/hyperlexic.


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.   http://www.parentseducationnetwork.org

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 http://www.parentseducationnetwork.org/safevoices, or Project Eye to Eye: http://www.projecteyetoeye.org

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.