Stevenson School Informs LD Students of Best College Choices
By Sybil Maimin
(L-R) Head of School Douglas Herron and Dr. Matthew Mandelbaum
All colleges are required by law to provide “reasonable accommodations” to students with documented disabilities. However, accommodations (for physical, emotional, and academic needs) vary widely from institution to institution and, unlike the experience in K-12 where school personnel “find you,” institutions of higher learning require a request for services from the student. A recent panel of experts at the Robert Louis Stevenson School that focused on school choice and success for students with special challenges, offered much valuable information as well as tips and strategies. Finding “the right match” is key. The “right” school has the right support system. Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist and medical director of The Jed Foundation, an organization that works to prevent suicides and protect the emotional health of college students, said parents and students should learn how mental health services operate in colleges prior to applying. He advised working with a high school counselor to find schools with robust programs. (“The college terrain is tremendously variable” regarding services, he warned.) Schwartz suggested having conversations with professionals at the chosen college the summer before attendance to put a clear plan in place and ensure someone at the school knows about the student’s needs. With preplanning, a person familiar with the student will be able to step in and help should a problem arise. (Schwartz reminded those wary of advance conversations about disabilities that a college cannot retract acceptances.)
Sherri Maxman of College Maven LLC, who provides college counseling for high school students with learning differences, suggested calling colleges during the search phase and inquiring if they provide the support a child needs. Type in “Disability Services” on a college’s web site to get an appropriate contact number. An evaluation from the past 3 years is required for disability accommodations. Colleen Lewis, director, and Ashley Schleimer, Student Services Coordinator, of the Office of Disability Services at Columbia University, stressed the importance of making a child aware of his or her own disability and of the support they need and are entitled to. In college, it is the responsibility of the student to request services. Lewis and Schleimer are surprised at the number of people who have never read their evaluations, cannot articulate their needs, and do not understand how their disability may impact their learning. The students who make the best transition from high school to college are those who are informed, prepared, and have taken advantage of the opportunity to plan for their needs before they arrive on campus. For those who assume their choice of schools may be very limited, consider that Columbia, in the Ivy League, offers a Student Disability Office with a staff of 16 that organizes accommodations and support services including assistive technology, networking groups, academic skills workshops, and learning specialists.
Some general advice from the panel included: help your child understand his rights and responsibilities; encourage self-advocacy; accept your teen for who she is, not who you want her to be; it is not necessary to identify as LD on college applications, although it may help explain poor grades; neuropsychological and legal services are out there for you; and reflect on your own teen years in order to gain some empathy.
Dr. Matthew Mandelbaum, director of outreach at the Robert Louis Stevenson School, which helps adolescents with histories of social-emotional and learning differences succeed, spoke of recognizing strengths and struggles and addressing both. There is room for optimism and hope, he said. With the right school and the right services, all students have the capacity for sound development. Stevenson headmaster, Douglas Herron, echoed the message, saying he is “extraordinarily impressed” with the number of services available for different learners today as well as the openness with which they are discussed and embraced.#