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Learning Curve

While an army of testers and tutors have focused on learning-disabled children, painfully little attention has been paid to the teenagers they become. Or to the fact that too few schools are equipped to handle their challenges—not to mention their creativity.


Sean Manning, a senior at a private high school in Brooklyn, decided it was time to take his life back. So he fired Lynne Hacker, the speech-language pathologist who had been helping him deal with his learning disability and attention-deficit disorder since he was 12. He also stopped seeing the psychiatrist who monitors his Adderall (a stimulant similar to Ritalin) and stopped taking the medication—except when he feels like it. Cool, obviously intelligent, and stylish in a cashmere sweater and soft leather jacket, looking every bit the Upper East Side kid he is, Sean explains, “I’m keen on my privacy. I don’t want my parents knowing what I do. I don’t want Lynne knowing. I know my parents and Lynne want to help so bad, but they turn it on me, and it makes matters worse. I get angry because they want to get involved so much.”

Sean has been tested and tutored since nursery school. The issues his preschool teacher identified—speech problems, difficulties with peers, impulsiveness—dogged him throughout elementary school. “He just pissed everyone off all the time,” his mother recalls. “He would get everything wrong, never hear you, ask the same question over and over. I remember going on field trips with his class, hearing kids say, ‘Okay, Sean, you asked me that six times.’ ”

Shortly after Sean began sixth grade, Hacker, who has been diagnosing and treating learning-disabled kids for over 30 years, found that in addition to a language disorder and deficits in “executive functioning,” particularly memory and organization, Sean had ADD, making him inattentive and prone to risky behavior. Sean saw Hacker two to four times a week on and off over the course of the next six years, and at first seemed responsive to therapy.

But by high school, he was becoming less and less compliant, establishing a pattern typical of many LD teenagers: He’d begin the school year with good intentions, promising to take his Adderall and keep up with the work. By mid-semester, he’d start to fall behind, and forget or refuse (depending on who was telling the story) to take his meds. He traveled back and forth across town to whichever of his divorced parents’ houses he chose on a given day and, in both homes, fought with the adults over rules and homework and what was best for him. He lavished time on photography, played his guitar, and wrote music, all of which conferred a sense of accomplishment that school did not. And he increasingly turned to pot. “It made me happier,” he says. “When I’m stoned, I’m not conscious of being ADD.”

Recently, Sean and his father struck a deal: Dad, a fund manager on Wall Street, gives his son $50 to $100 when he gets an A or B; Sean pays it back when he earns a lower grade. So far, he’s ahead. His parents are holding their breath. “The truth,” his mother admits, “is that we’re just trying to get him out of high school.”

After more than a decade of research and press about learning disabilities and the controversial practice of medicating children as young as 4, New York private and public schools are alert, if not hypersensitive, to the earliest signs of trouble. At the same time, an ever-expanding legion of specialists is helping kids with learning issues decode language and handle the rigorous homework and exams that competitive private schools demand. All this attention allows many bewildered, underachieving elementary-school kids to make substantial gains and perform much more like the intelligent children they are.

But when these tutored and tested and often medicated kids reach adolescence, many of them hit a wall. “Being identified early is not enough,” Hacker explains. “This is a lifelong issue. Many kids come to me with tons of remediation behind them, but without the knowledge of what to expect in middle and high school.”

Absent such preparation, says Hacker, the Johnny Can’t Read kid has a good chance of becoming Johnny Who Doesn’t Care. He’s taller than his parents, he has a mind of his own, and he’s a master at wearing them down. Maybe he’s failing out of the private school his parents pulled strings to get him into and hired tutors to keep him in. Maybe he’s spending more and more time with his skateboarding pals, thrill-seeking and smoking weed to insulate himself from daily failure. Or maybe he (or she—though girls display subtler signs and tend to be diagnosed later, these are equal-opportunity disorders) is sweet but isolated, a kid who swims painfully alone in the social stream, blaming the alienation on himself.

And here’s the cruelest irony: In a city rich with educational resources, the number of schools willing and able to handle their challenges is alarmingly small. Getting into a good private nursery school is child’s play compared with the applications-to-admissions ratio at Winston Prep and the Churchill School, the only two high schools in Manhattan established solely for kids with learning disabilities—and yes, both are named after the former prime minister of Britain, who was dyslexic. Churchill, which expanded its program past middle school just two years ago to help meet the demand, stopped taking applications for next year after 150 had been received—for about eight slots. “Word on the street, one mother told me,” says Kristy Baxter, head of the Churchill School and its related center, “is that we’re harder to get into than Harvard.”

To be sure, all children become more vulnerable as they slouch toward adulthood. Social demands escalate, schoolwork becomes more sophisticated, and hormones wreak havoc. But kids with learning disabilities and ADD experience a double whammy: Just as they are beset by increased self-consciousness and a raging desire to strike out on their own, their academic struggles reach a crescendo. Going from the safety of one classroom to the confusion of many, given hours of homework and assignments requiring abstract thinking, youngsters who floundered in elementary school can find themselves drowning.

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