Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 13, 2012

A long view on learning disabilities

Coaching students and parents for decades, Morrissey and Compton have seen every trend

by Chris Kenrick

After nearly a half-century of working with learning disabilities, Pat Morrissey and Carolyn Compton have witnessed every trend — as well as the birth of an industry.

Special education didn't even have a name when Morrissey was hired by the Palo Alto Unified School District in 1964 to teach in a "reading program" for struggling students.

Fast forward to today: Bright kids who once would have fallen through the cracks because they "couldn't read" can get diagnosed and taught compensatory techniques — including use of technology tools — to help them get through college and beyond.

Take a client, seen by Morrissey and Compton since he was 8, who's now a 37-year-old corporate manager with degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Southern California. He still uses technology tools to mitigate his trouble with reading and writing.

"He spends maybe three hours more than the average person to get something out, but when he gets it out it's first-class," Compton said.

After teaching elsewhere, Morrissey and Compton teamed up in the early 1980s to launch their own nonprofit tutoring program and summer school, which has grown to a staff of six psychologists and other specialists offering diagnostic evaluations for children and adults. They also offer parent education and school-related psychotherapy for students suffering from anxiety, depression and school phobias.

The summer program, Challenge School — for K-6 students who have academic trouble in the regular classroom — this month marks its 30th year in session.

"We try to mix the work and the fun so some kids really think it's a summer camp," Compton said.

In their decades in business, the educational psychologists have seen a surge in the use of "study drugs" — as well as a significant group of parents who steadfastly reject the idea of medicating their kids.

They've seen a growth in use of "accommodations" — extended test-taking times and the like — to help students with learning disabilities meet academic challenges.

They've observed the stubborn persistence of learning disabilities in students — if compensation techniques are removed, the child who couldn't spell as a third-grader still cannot spell as an adult.

They've seen a shift in a once common belief that learning disabilities were mostly a problem for boys to an understanding that they affect both sexes.

But most of all, the two said in a recent interview, they've seen improved diagnosis and awareness of learning differences — and a conviction that techniques can be taught that can help a student work around their disabilities.

"We see students over their educational lifespan, and we've learned so much from them," Compton said.

"We can convey to anxious parents who come in with their 8-year-old and ask, 'Will he ever read, will he ever write, what are we going to do?' that, yes, he's going to be fine.

"To me, that is thrilling."

Compton once wrote a book called, "Guide to 100 Tests for Special Education," acquainting readers with the huge range of available diagnostic evaluations.

In reality, she and Morrissey have narrowed that list to about 20 "pretty standard" tests that they use for evaluations, depending on the needs of the student.

Often, they're testing elementary-age children. But they say they've also tested students from Stanford, Princeton, Harvard — "every major university."

"We have a number of kids here who are at Stanford," Compton said.

"People say, 'How can there be students at Stanford with a learning disability?'

"Usually you're smart and you've had good tutoring and education, so your scores on standardized tests are pretty good, but the amount of work it takes you to get those good grades and scores is much heavier than for other students."

Occasionally, parents of a young client will ask to be tested themselves.

"They say, 'He's just like me, and I'd really like to know,'" Compton said.

Increased academic pressure on young children has led to more testing, though not necessarily a greater incidence of learning disabilities, they said.

"The bar keeps going up a little higher all the time," Morrissey noted.

Compton, once a first-grade teacher, said, "The things that were taught in first grade are now taught in day care.

"Actual curriculum is being pushed down, and pressures on young children are very high, so more children get tested."

Their advice to anxious parents would be: "If they're very anxious parents they should gather information," Morrissey said.

"The more solid, good information you have, the better equipped you are to sort of understand what might be going on, and the better you are at projecting a program that sounds realistic and reasonable.

"I don't encourage people who aren't all that anxious to get kids tested at young ages. But when you don't know something, your anxiety can create all kinds of images of things that might not necessarily be true."

Like Morrissey-Compton Educational Center, the Children's Health Council of Palo Alto — where Compton once worked — offers diagnostic testing for learning disabilities.

The difference, said Compton, is her group is "smaller and focused almost entirely on learning disabilities, while the Children's Health Council does a much broader look at mental health, speech and language, and motor involvement.

"If a family calls and has many issues, we often say, 'You'd do much better to go to the Children's Health Council and get everything in one place.'"

For the past decade, Morrissey-Compton has tried to boost school opportunities for kids in the juvenile justice system and other county programs through arrangements with the Santa Clara County departments of Juvenile Probation and Child and Family Services.

Though rarely serving those children directly, they counsel parents, foster parents and social workers on how to get special education and other services.

"When you have children in the court system, the likelihood of having (learning) problems — all kinds of problems — is huge," Morrissey said.

"Often, the behavior problems overwhelm the teacher so nobody looks at the educational issue. Trying to get a child back on track has been very rewarding, but it's been very hard."

They cited the case of a San Jose boy picked up by the police for graffiti who got into further trouble for using extreme profanity with police and a judge. Morrissey and Compton suggested a psychiatric evaluation for Tourette Syndrome, which turned out to be his diagnosis.

The case resulted in an apology from the judge and a special program for the boy within the San Jose Unified School District, Morrissey said.

Morrissey and Compton have tried to diversify their caseload, creating a scholarship fund and broadening the summer program to include some low-income students.

The fact that neither Morrissey nor Compton has biological children occasionally has led to skepticism from parents.

"When I started out, people would say, 'Unless you're a parent I don't think you can really understand the parent perspective,' but I think that has passed," Compton said.

Morrissey told of a recent lunch with a client she once tutored who is now a teacher in Palo Alto. The former client recalled that when learning issues had come up when she was a child, her mother would say: "Go talk that over with your other mother."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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