‘I Wasn’t Taught to Read–I Was Taught to Play Games’

Published April 1, 1999

Until February 18, when she testified at a District of Columbia Council hearing on special education, few people–apart from her fellow students at Coolidge High School in northwest Washington, DC–had heard of high school senior Saundra Lemons.

At Coolidge, Lemons is a star basketball performer–the team’s top rebounder–and she holds the record for the second highest number of points scored this season. Her dream is to play basketball in college, and she has been recruited by colleges with top women’s basketball teams. But Lemons’ dream is dying because–although she has enough credits to graduate–this high school senior reads only at a fourth-grade level.

Although her early delays in developing language skills had received attention before she entered elementary school, when Lemons was in first grade the District of Columbia Public Schools determined she was eligible for special education as a Speech/Language Impaired student. But instead of being given special education treatment for speech and language difficulties, Lemons was placed in an education program for the mentally retarded, where she remained for the next six years.

Following a re-evaluation by DCPS in sixth grade, Lemons was reassigned as a Level III Learning Disabled student with a recommendation that her special education should involve a strong language component. Despite this recommendation, she received speech and language therapy only in sixth grade. She transferred to another junior high school in the eighth grade, and no further special education services were provided until she was a junior in high school. After a DCPS re-evaluation last February, Lemons was placed in a Level II Learning Disabled program with just one group lesson a week for speech and language therapy.

An independent evaluation by the Lindamood Bell Learning Processes program recommends intensive remediation for Lemons’ language processing difficulties, with a positive prognosis for academic growth. Because of DCPS staff shortages, however, Lemons is receiving no speech/language services this year.

After reading a Washington Post account of her testimony before the DC Council, School Reform News‘ Managing Editor George Clowes interviewed Lemons to get a first-hand account of how the present system of delivering public and special education can fail the very children it is supposed to serve.

Clowes: Tell me a little about the evaluations and decisions that were made regarding your education. When did they start?

Lemons: It started in first grade, when I was six years old. They put me in a class for the mentally retarded. Nobody really told me that I was in mentally retarded classes until Nancy Opalack [Lemons’ special education advocate] told me.

My mother said that back when I was little, I never used to talk. I would just shake my head “Yes” or “No,” and so she wanted me tested. They got me tested and that’s how they put me in classes for mentally retarded students. I am not retarded!

Clowes: What kinds of things did they give you to do in the special education classes in the early grades?

Lemons: Play games. What I did learn, I learned on my own. I wasn’t taught to read, I was taught to play games.

Clowes: How long did that situation continue?

Lemons: They took me out when I was in sixth grade. My sixth-grade teacher knew that I wasn’t mentally retarded, and she said that they needed to change me over to Learning Disabled. She helped get me out of the mentally retarded program and into a Learning Disabled class.

Clowes: How different were the LD classes from the classes you’d had before? Was it sixth-grade math and reading or did they take you back to first grade?

Lemons: They did it on your level. It was fourth-grade math and third-grade reading and first-grade reading–on your level. The classes were different because we had to work. We did do work. We’d read, we’d do math, all sorts of stuff like that.

It took me a long time to catch on to reading because I hadn’t been taught to read. That was very hard for me. It’s very hard for me to comprehend when I just hear something. If I hear it, I don’t always comprehend it, but if I see it on a piece of paper, then I know what I’m doing. It’s the same with math. I have to see the problem and go over it to get it.

Clowes: Did these classes bring you up to sixth-grade level?

Lemons: They helped me get to the third-grade level, and then I read on my own and helped myself to get to the fourth-grade reading level. I read on my own–I read first-grade books, I read second-grade books, I just kept on reading and reading and getting better and better. Yes, they helped me to get to the third-grade level but, like I said, they put me in the mentally retarded classes until the sixth grade.

Clowes: Did they put you in regular classes in junior high?

Lemons: Yes, I had some regular classes in seventh grade, and two or three special ed classes. I went to the special ed classes, but it was bad for me. They were still working on the third-grade level and I was trying to reach up to a different level, to the eighth grade. I said “You’re not helping me!”

I didn’t receive any additional language classes in seventh grade. I was scheduled for language therapy, but I didn’t get it. Then, in the ninth grade, I was put in all regular education classes.

Clowes: Then you graduated from junior high to high school?

Lemons: Right. They wanted me for basketball. They took me out of special ed for ninth grade and tenth grade. I was in all regular education classes. It was very difficult. It was hard, real hard. You see, when you have a learning disability and you are taking regular classes, you are supposed to have a tutor with you in the classes. When I was in the ninth grade, after they switched me over to regular classes, I didn’t see any tutor in there to help me with my math class or my English class.

The passing grades that I got from ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade years were a gift. I did the work, but I just didn’t comprehend it because it was on a different level.

Clowes: Why did they take you out of special ed?

Lemons: When I transferred to Coolidge, they didn’t know that I was in special ed. If they had known I was special ed, I probably would not have gone up there. I would have had to go to my neighborhood school. Then, in eleventh grade, Coach Brown said I should be in different classes, and my mother came up to the school to ask why I wasn’t having any of my special ed services. You see, they took me out of special ed and they never got in touch with my mother to tell her anything.

I didn’t know this then, but they never did a complete Individualized Education Program for me in my ninth-grade year or tenth-grade year or eleventh-grade year. Now someone’s taking care of it, and they did an up-to-date IEP last February.

Clowes: And that got you back into special ed classes again?

Lemons: Yes, one. I got one special ed class for reading. It didn’t work because I’m reading on a below-basic level, and all we did was silent reading. When you have kids that are reading at third-grade and fourth-grade levels, you should read out loud and look up and repeat the words that you don’t know. With silent reading, I could be reading the book and covering a whole lot of words but probably not knowing any of the words. But you won’t know that because I’m just sitting there and I look like I’m reading. That’s how that class was.

You can read a book and not know what you’re reading. When you read any book with a lesson in it, you have to comprehend what you’re reading before you can do that lesson. You have to know what you’re reading and what it’s all about in your brain before you can answer the questions that are in the book.

Clowes: What about your classes this year? Are they helping?

Lemons: I had one special ed class last semester, another one this semester, and a Reading Skills class. The reading class is helping a little bit, maybe because the reading teacher is the same one that I got last year. At first, I had a teacher who didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand her. She was supposed to be a reading teacher, and I figured she’d know what she was doing, but when I was in her class I had to ask a lot of questions. If I don’t understand something I ask questions because I want to know.

The teacher had a twelfth-grade English book as the reading book with a whole lot of words that I didn’t know. And so I asked: “What are these words?” She wanted me to take a twelfth-grade reading book, sit down, read it, and do the lesson. I said, “No, it’s time for me to get out of here.” So I got switched over to another reading class with my reading teacher from last year. And she’s trying to help me read out loud–just the two of us.

Clowes: From your perspective, what needs to be done to bring you up to where you want to be?

Lemons: Right now, I need that one-on-one attention. Comprehension, vowel letters, work with the vowels, spell it on your tongue–the sort of things you do when you’re in language therapy. I went through a Lindamood Bell Learning Center and I think that would be a good center for me. It’s one-on-one and they make you build the sounds with your tongue and your teeth, with your whole mouth. I think I need that one-on-one at this moment. I know I can read if I’m taught in the right way.

Clowes: That’s what they should have done when you were in first grade.

Lemons: That’s when they said that I was mentally retarded, and with no social skills, and a learning disability. Then, when I got to the sixth grade, I was lost because I didn’t know how to read.

Clowes: Knowing what you know now, what would you do if you saw someone in a similar situation?

Lemons: I would get mad. I would tell her not to think she is dumb because she’s in special ed. She just needs to be taught how to read. You know, they’ve had kids all these years in special ed and when they get out in the world, they don’t know how to read. Half of those kids in special ed drop out because they’re ashamed they can’t read. When they get out there in the world they don’t know what to do because they’ve always been treated like they’re retarded.

I’m not doing this only for me. I’m doing this for all of the kids in special ed who are being treated as if they are retarded. I don’t think that is right.