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Math learning disability? There are options for success in high school and beyond

With accommodations, modifications and thoughtful course selection most students who have a learning disability in math are able to make it through elementary and middle school. High schools operate on a different set of rules however, and for some of these students and their parents the path to a diploma can seem like a minefield! North Carolina’s Future-Ready Core Course of Study was designed to satisfy the minimum admission requirements for the University of North Carolina System schools and have all students graduate “college and career ready.”

adamtglass-com[1].jpgThis is a noble, and perhaps necessary, objective. But what about those students whose brains are hard-wired in a way that will always make algebra a foreign language for which there is no translation? The Future-Ready Core requires 4 units of math that include Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, and another math course beyond Algebra 2. The content of the first three courses can also come in the form of integrated Math I, II and III courses, but that does not make it easier to learn.

Fortunately, the activism of the Learning Disabilities Association of North Carolina many years ago still benefits the high school students of today. When Algebra 1 was first added as a graduation requirement a clause was placed in our Public School Law clarifying that:

The State Board (of Education) shall not adopt or enforce any rule that requires Algebra I as a  graduation standard or as a requirement for a high school diploma for any student whose individualized education program (i) identifies the student as learning disabled in the area of mathematics and (ii) states that this learning disability will prevent the student from mastering Algebra I. [N.C.G.S. 115C-81(b)]

Because of this provision in the law, schools have to provide other ways for these students to satisfy the math graduation requirement. The student and parent can consult with school guidance counselors and others to put together an alternative sequence of four math courses that is appropriate for that student. The math sequence must be approved by the school principal in order to satisfy high school graduation requirements. As a general rule, students will still have to take two “pure” math courses, but they may be “Introductory…” or “Foundations…” courses that focus on basic skills.

Many career and technical education (CTE) courses have enough math-related content that they are approved to count as math credits if they are part of a student’s alternative math sequence. In some cases, the student may have to complete a 2-course sequence in order to gain one math credit. The CTE courses also still count as elective credits. Hopefully, students will be able to find eligible CTE courses that relate to either a personal or career interest. Even though no high school offers every possible CTE course, many of them are available as on-line courses through the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS). The NCVPS can greatly expand the range of course options that can be considered. This can be especially helpful for students in smaller high schools or school systems, or those enrolled in public charter schools.

Using an alternative math sequence may not allow a student to go directly into one of North Carolina’s 4-year public universities, but it can offer a path to a high school diploma. The diploma, in turn, opens the door to lots of possibilities. A student can choose to move directly into the workforce and be able to check “yes” when a job application asks “Did you graduate from high school?” They will be eligible to enroll in any of our community colleges to further their education. Private colleges, trade and technical schools set their own admission requirements. They may be willing to accept a math-challenged student into a major or program that does not require a high level of math skills.

There is no single path to success in high school, or in life. With planning, hard work and perseverance there are few limits to what young people can achieve. Calculators come in handy too!

Back to school: Look closely at your child’s class schedule

For students in middle and high school it is extremely important for parents to keep up with the courses that they are taking. The classes should offer the right amount of challenge (not too easy, not too hard). They should be preparing your child for whatever their goals are for life after high school. More importantly, the courses need to be chosen so that they meet the graduation requirements for your school system. With many schools using computer programs to create schedules for students, it’s not hard for the needs of individual students to be overlooked.

For many students who have disabilities, course selection is even more critical. For some students it will be important to make sure that they are placed in the course sections that are co-taught by both regular education and special education teachers. This can offer real-time assistance and support to help students be successful with grade-level material. The co-taught classes can be selected in the areas most likely impacted by the student’s disability. Sometimes the assumption is made that, because the student has an IEP, they should automatically be placed in the lowest level course available. This approach would keep many students from building on their strengths to reach their full potential. Students who need support in some subjects can also take typical or even honors classes in subjects that are areas of strength for them.

These days, most high schools are using block schedules that cover the entire content of a course during a single semester. It may be important to make sure that the courses that will be most challenging for your child are not all piled into the same semester. With thoughtful planning, the school can create a schedule that spreads the work load out more evenly. For example, your child can take two really hard classes at the same time plus a support class and an elective in an area of interest. This kind of planning from the very beginning will usually allow students to complete all of their graduation requirements within 4 years so they can graduate with their peers. Even if they have to pick up a summer class or return for an extra semester, the goal is that the student experiences success and gains knowledge that will help them throughout their life. The extra time will be well spent.

Parents also need to look out for other kinds of scheduling problems:

  • Make sure that courses are taken in the right sequence. The level1 course should come before the level 2 course.
  • Make sure that your child is not assigned to a course that they have already successfully completed. With rare exceptions, they will not earn course credit the second time around.
  • Make sure that your child was not placed in an elective course that they have no interest in, or one that is a poor fit, just because there was space in that class. Forcing an extremely shy kid to take a drama class will probably not end well.
  •  Make sure that your child is on track to graduate when expected. Your child could be taking math and science classes that are counted as “electives” that do not meet the graduation requirements for that subject area. If your child comes up short by missing even a single graduation requirement, they will not get a diploma. At least once a year have your child’s guidance counselor review the courses that your child has taken and compare them to the courses required for graduation.

Read your child’s class schedule carefully as soon as you get it.  If you see anything on that doesn’t look right, contact staff at the school immediately.  Go to the school in person if you need to.  The sooner any problems are corrected, the easier it will be for your child, and the better their educational experience will be.

Is your child on track for graduation?

We sometimes get calls from parents of high school students that are concerned that their child is doing poorly in school for one reason or another, and as we try to get to the root of the problem, we may ask the parent what classes the student is taking.  I am dismayed, but no longer surprised, by the number of parents who cannot answer that question.  If parents don’t know the courses that their child is taking during a given semester, then it very likely that they also don’t have a good understanding of where the child stands with regard to meeting the requirements to graduate with a diploma.

graduation cap with books and diplomaIn North Carolina there are two courses of study (COS) that lead to a high school diploma: the Future-Ready Core Course of Study and the Future-Ready Occupational Course of Study (OCS).  Each COS has it’s own specific set of requirements, which must be met completely before the student will be able to receive a diploma.  The decision about which COS is the most appropriate for a particular student is usually made late in the 8th grade year, and parents need to ask as many questions as necessary to understand what will be expected of their child.  But that’s just the beginning!

Parents and students should periodically check to see which graduation requirements have been met and which are still outstanding.  In most schools, the guidance counselors will meet with each student at least once a year, especially as courses are being selected for the following year.  What’s surprising to many parents is that a lot of schools do not routinely involve parents in this process.  The parent may have to initiate contact with the counselor and ask to have an unofficial transcript sent home, or maybe schedule a face-to-face meeting with the counselor to see where things stand.  Every school system will have it’s graduation requirements available on it’s website and in any high school planning guide that they may publish (you may have to ask for a copy in order to get one).

Think about how much time the student has left in school, and which courses have to be taken before the student will be allowed to take a needed, or desired, course (those are called “prerequisites”).  Are there any tests or projects that are stand-alone graduation requirements?  If your child plans to go to college, are they taking the courses that will meet the college or university’s admission requirements?  Is the student taking, but failing course after course, ending up with very few credits toward graduation?  Are they taking remedial courses that they pass, but only count as elective credits?  Is the student taking career-technical classes that have nothing to do with their career goal or area of interest?  If the student is on the OCS, do they have the required number of  hours for each type of work experience?  If not, what’s the plan for accomplishing by the time graduation is expected? Who can help with this?

In some cases, parents and students have made a 5-year plan for high school, only to be told that the student MUST graduate at the end of four years.  When this happens, there has often been inadequate planning for the student’s transition to adulthood and nothing is in place to support them once they leave school.  Spacing the required courses out over a longer period of time can buy the student more time to work on transition goals, further develop their skills, and have experiences that will give them a better chance for success as an adult.

The bottom line is that parents need to stay on top of their student’s progress throughout the high school years.  There is a High School Planner available at www.cfnc.org that can help parents and students keep track of graduation requirements that have been, or still need to be met.  A similar tool may be available through the high school.  Once again, the guidance counselor will be the key contact for this entire process.   Establishing a good working relationship with that counselor can only work in your child’s best interest, so it’s well worth the effort.