12 JUNE 2001

A "nationally significant accomplishment which may help erase the widespread but mistaken impression that special education students cannot compete academically with other classmates"

Autistic Teen Goes to the Head of the Class 

Two years ago, Hazel Robinson had had enough. She thought the private school in Northern Virginia that her disabled son was attending was too easy for him. She transferred him to Cardozo Senior High School, a public school three blocks from her home in a low-income part of Northwest Washington.

That was the first surprise for Cardozo Principal Reginald Ballard, who had never had parents say they preferred his special education services to those of a private school. Usually the parents of disabled D.C. students want their children removed from public programs and placed in private facilities, with the cost borne by the D.C. government.

The second surprise will happen Tuesday morning on the stage of Cramton Auditorium at Howard University. Robinson's son, Lee Alderman, a shy 19-year-old with mild autism, will become the first special education student in the District -- and perhaps in the metropolitan area -- to graduate as valedictorian of his public high school class.

Experts on disabilities say this is a nationally significant accomplishment, one which may help erase the widespread but mistaken impression that special education students cannot compete academically with other classmates.

About 13 percent of the nation's public school students have individual education plans, or IEPs, that entitle them to special tutors, counselors and other services. Many do well in school, educators say, but rarely try for the top honors.

"I have never personally seen a student with an IEP achieve valedictorian status," said Lynn Boyer, a psychologist with 20 years of experience in special education and project director for the National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education. "I applaud both the mother's determination to have her son in a general education environment and the District of Columbia public schools for its willingness to support her and the student to be successful," Boyer said.

Alderman's success is boosting Ballard's effort to improve special education services and persuade more disabled students to try the school's growing number of college-level Advanced Placement courses. Ballard said that he welcomes special education students, who make up 21 percent of Cardozo's 728-student enrollment, and that 20 percent of his faculty members have credentials in special education, far above the national average.

Alderman said his valedictory address will describe how he learned to thrive at Cardozo, where he once feared he would be teased and maybe even beaten up. Most of his Cardozo classes have been small, and he has rarely encountered an auditorium full of strangers. But he said he is ready for the speech: "I'm confident that I'll probably be a little nervous, but public speaking is not, like, a nightmare." He said he doesn't consider his 3.91 grade-point average -- the highest at Cardozo in six years -- or his success in AP calculus and AP English remarkable, but he likes the message his good grades convey. "Some people, they probably think that being special-ed means you're dumb or something like that," he said.

The causes of autism are not fully understood. Its symptoms are varied: They include lack of empathy, repetitive speech, resistance to change, poor motor coordination and preoccupation with objects.

Robinson said that for much of her son's early years she thought that he was intellectually limited. He was slow to walk and talk, and doctors said his disability would make it difficult for him to connect emotionally with others and learn in a normal school setting. "I wallowed in self-pity," Robinson said. "I am not going to deny it."

But Alderman started reading when he was 4, and some of the teachers at Aiton Elementary School in the District said he had potential. At 11, he was sent to Accotink Academy, a private school in Springfield for children with learning disabilities. The District government paid the tuition, as it is required to do by federal law.

Robinson said that the Accotink staff members were kind and well-trained but that she began to worry that they were doing too much for her son. He rode a special bus to and from school each day. To her, the lessons did not seem to be difficult enough. She began to think that he "could probably do just as well with the regular school kids." The Accotink staff disagreed. Education director Julia Warden and assistant education director Ann Warnke said they are delighted that Alderman has done so well at Cardozo. But at the time, they said, they thought his social and emotional disabilities could make him a target for harassment by other students.

Robinson had heard stories of violence and poor teaching at Cardozo, but an older daughter had done well in the D.C. public schools, so she thought it was worth a try. "I wanted a chance for him to be independent, to go to school on his own," she said. He enrolled at Cardozo as an 11th-grader. She walked him to school on the first day, signing him in while he sat quietly in a chair. She returned at 3:15 p.m. to walk him home. "He didn't seem anxious," she said, "but sometimes it is hard to figure out what he is thinking."

Alderman said he was concerned about how he would get along with other students. "I find it hard to say things that I am sure others are interested in," he said.

Cardozo teachers and other top-performing students soon sensed his worth and went out of their way to help him, Robinson said.

"My initial impression of Lee was that he seemed to be extremely nervous and was obviously shy," said Frazier O'Leary, his English teacher. His cramped handwriting was difficult to read, but O'Leary found that when he began to decipher it, "I was pleasantly surprised with the sophistication of his thinking." His test scores were good. His SAT of 1140 is the highest in his class. O'Leary worked on his handwriting, and Alderman struggled with the demands of AP English. "I would spend most of my afternoon or evening on an assignment," he said. "Although I knew some of the terms, it was very difficult to find a way to use them." In Deborah Pearman's AP calculus class, other students asked him for help. He also took chemistry, world history, U.S. government, graphic arts and music appreciation.

Cardozo faculty members are confident that Alderman is also the only valedictorian in the area to have taken an auto mechanics course, despite his family not having a car. "I just thought it would be an interesting course," he said.

Edward Shepherd, a social worker on the Cardozo staff, became Alderman's mentor, teaching him how to get along in a high-voltage teenage world and even helping him buy a tuxedo when the faculty and his friends persuaded him to go to the prom.

School psychologist Monica Moment also worked with him, and Assistant Principal Barbara Childs made sure that he was included on senior trips to local colleges. One trip to St. Mary's College in Maryland led to a full scholarship, which his mother said he will accept.

O'Leary said that his "life as a teacher changed" the day he encountered Alderman. "Many educators see a special-ed label and immediately lump all of the students into one very negative group," he said. He will not be able to forget how Alderman changed from a withdrawn student who rarely made eye contact to a talented writer "who has no problem sharing his subtle sense of humor and his work with the class."


By Jay Mathews Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, June 10, 2001





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