Pretty deer and it's also costly

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Dyslexia was first diagnosed 100 years ago but acceptance has taken nearly a century. Sue Palmer left, describes how computers are helping her daughter and Reva Klein, below, visits an American university devoted to dyslexics.

As small, exclusive New England colleges go, Landmark is pretty small and pretty exclusive. And just plain pretty. Set in the densely wooded Connecticut River Valley and flanked by mountains in Putney, Vermont, it must be one of the most beauteously bucolic campuses anywhere.

Snowy in winter, gloriously sunny the rest of the time, this is a place where the racoons scurry, the deer roam, the bears lumber about and the students do what students the world over do: they learn and they play.

But here, the learning is different. Landmark is the only accredited college in the world exclusively serving the needs of students with dyslexia, Attention DeficitHyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other specific learning difficulties.

Most of the students at Landmark went through their school years feeling that they were failures and often being told so because of their usually undiagnosed learning difficulties. Their poor grades ensured that they wouldn't get into anything other than junior college (low status, two-year colleges) and their future prospects were bleak for anything requiring more than the most basic literacy or numeracy skills. In a fiercely competitive and status-obsessed America, this is the equivalent to being told they have no future.

They are at Landmark, many of them, as a last-ditch attempt to claim a future for themselves. Parents, such as David Cole's, have watched their son struggle for years and act in anti-social ways. "I guess I gave them a pretty rough time," he shrugs. "I couldn't focus on my work, so I was getting in trouble all the time, getting suspensions and warnings. There'd be weeks at a time when I just couldn't face going into school."

Partly out of exasperation, partly out of parents having faith in their children, people turn to Landmark in the hope that the college can turn things around for the children cast as academic no-hopers.

Hope isn't all that the parents have. At Pounds 18,600 a year, this is easily the most expensive college in the United States. Just over half of the 240 students have their fees paid by their parents. The oldest student, aged 60, has his fees paid by his brother, the comedian Bill Cosby, who has put other members of his family through the college, too. The remainder manage with difficulty, paying through a combination of federal and state scholarships and loans. Landmark itself provides a scholarship to about 40 students: the maximum amount per student is currently $9,600.

Parents - and others - are prepared to pay these fees because Landmark offers an education programme unheard of elsewhere. The college ensures a student to staff ratio of three to one with average class sizes of seven. In addition, every student receives four-and-a-half hours of individual tutorial instruction a week.

Students, most of them in their early 20s, stay an average of two years to attain their Associate of Arts degree in General Studies, which can also be used to transfer credits to other colleges. Most students, upon satisfying certain criteria, will be allowed to enter the third year of a four-year Bachelor of Arts course at other colleges with an Associate of Arts degree from Landmark.

The instruction is designed to teach students how to learn, often for the first time. Although dyslexia and ADHD are distinct conditions, what they have in common are difficulties in integrating and processing information, as well as an inability to organise and manage basic tasks and focus on one thing at a time. To deal with these problems, the learning programme at Landmark is based on helping students manage themselves, even though that means starting at the most rudimentary level of self organisation.

Assistant professor Geoff Burgess explains the college's approach. "We're not here to provide shortcuts for the students. They are not allowed to bypass their difficulties by taking oral rather than written exams or using taped books, or having other people take notes or write their papers for them.

"What we do is teach them skills and strategies that are necessary for them to achieve academically. They learn how to learn and that gives them independence and confidence, which most of our students will have never experienced before."

The methodology - not so much back to basics as down to basics for the first time - appears to work. Since Landmark was founded in 1985 by Dr Charles Drake, an educator who was also a dyslexic, the college has equipped nearly 1, 500 students with the skills and confidence to go on to other colleges and universities.

For an outsider of a cynical turn of mind, the college raises questions of who these students are, what their abilities are and who is making a diagnosis. With fees as high as they are, it is reasonable to wonder whether there is a financial incentive in diagnosing an applicant ADHD or as having another learning difficulty when, in reality, they are just not as academically inclined as their parents would like them to be. With the broad range of symptoms attributable to ADHD in particular, the disorder could be a catch-all for many people who are simply seeking a medical justification for under-achievement.

Dr Lynda Katz, president of the college, refutes this suggestion, and not for the first time. "We run rigorous and comprehensive tests on each applicant and ask for assessments from independent educational psychologists. We also look closely at the students' high school records. We aren't a repository for parents who want their children to be perfect. The fundamental criterion in our assessment of whether a student has a genuine learning difficulty is whether their problems are standing in the way of leading a normal life and achieving what they want to achieve.

"A young person who comes here frustrated with not being able to do the most simple arithmetic or who has difficulty in retaining information from one page to the next or who can't organise their thoughts enough to write a paragraph clearly has a problem, whatever the diagnostic label. There is a big difference between under-achievement due to lack of motivation or other psycho-social factors and having ADHD or a learning difficulty like dyslexia."

One Landmark graduate, Libby Layman, had been an under-achieving, frustrated teenager who was close to being written off altogether before she came to the college, where she was diagnosed as dyslexic. She was among the first to graduate from Landmark and used her Associate of Arts degree to get into the presitigious Mt Holyoke College in Massachussetts, where she got a degree in psychology.

She is now back at Landmark - this time as a senior administrator. "I know what it feels like to spend years believing that you're not as good as everybody else and working out ways of avoiding doing things that will focus attention on your deficiencies. My two years as a student at Landmark showed me that there were other people with similar problems to mine and that, with the right building blocks, I could overcome a lot of the barriers that had always been in my way."

She says that she still has difficulties and believes that there is no cure. "But when I'm confronted with something that's hard, I can draw on the strategies that I've learned and I'll overcome it. For me, it's tremendously satisfying to be able to help other young people overcome their difficulties. "

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