Investigating Student Learning Disabilities in Andover Academics

Sofie Brown ’18 says that math has always challenged her. In middle school, she was told to wear glasses so that she could see numbers with more clarity. It took years of faulty conclusions before Brown was properly diagnosed with the learning disability known as dyscalculia, which makes arithmetical calculations difficult.

At Andover, students with learning disabilities work with the Office of Student Disability Services to receive appropriate accommodations to meet their needs. In order to receive accommodations, students are required to submit documentation in adherence to the school’s Documentation Guidelines, including a statement from a licensed professional.

This process can take anywhere from a day to over a month, depending on the nature of the disability. Throughout this time, students meet with Patricia Davison, Director of the Academic Skills Center and Coordinator of Student Disability Services.

“I work closely with students, evaluators, parents, the Medical Director, Director of Psychological Services, and all of my colleagues to implement appropriate and reasonable accommodations for students with all types of disabilities,” wrote Davison in an email to The Phillipian.

Davison helps students determine their most beneficial course of action for academic accommodations, such as receiving extended time on assessments or access to different teaching styles. Davison tries to implement accommodations for students with learning disabilities within seven school days of receipt of proper documentation. But according to Davison, requiring structural changes at facilities for students with chronic long-term disabilities can take six weeks or more.

Brown is one the students who works with Davison to sort out academic needs. Brown began working with Davison in her Junior year, prior to her diagnosis.
“[Davison] knows all the rules and regulations of everything perfectly, and she’s always made sure that I’ve had the forms, that I’ve had the accommodations, and I’ve had the time I needed. If I forget meetings, she bends over backwards to make a time to reschedule so that I can get the academic help that I need,” said Brown.

Mae Zhao ’18, who has been diagnosed with ADD, created DyAd last year. DyAd, which is an acronym that combines the names of learning disabilities Dyslexia, ADD, and ADHD, is a support and advocacy group for students with these learning disabilities. The club also hosts workshops relating to learning disabilities.

Zhao was inspired to form DyAd when she noted a level of hesitance in students to talk to their teachers about their academic needs.

“For me, it was more just like [ADD] was something I’ve always struggled with when I was first here, and I felt as I learned to figure out what to do and what not to do, I saw other students that were also going through the same thing, and I felt like I wanted to create an environment that would help students with learning differences,” said Zhao.

DREAM, which stands for “Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring,” is another club on campus that addresses disabilities. According to Kabir Nagral ’19, a member of DREAM, the club serves to educate students and advocate for disability rights.

Nagral said, “We did the [Martin Luther King] Day workshops. We’ve done more related to education and activism as opposed to mentoring, but that’s maybe something we’d like to expand [upon].”

According to Zhao, the support that clubs like DyAd and DREAM offer is important because having a learning disability on campus can sometimes lead to isolation. Zhao thinks that at times others don’t understand the amount of effort it takes for students with disabilities to do well and their need for different methods of studying.

“Even though we might be able to get through the academics fine, we might be able to do well in class, there’s this isolation that I felt from other people because they just didn’t really understand the amount of effort it takes to do as well as others. People with learning differences, we study completely differently. We need to isolate ourselves and be in a quiet space, and it’s that isolation, that difference in studying, especially at a place like Andover where studying is a huge part of our lives. You can feel really isolated,” said Zhao.
Zhao continued, “Why am I the only one who has to isolate myself in silent all the time? Why can’t I just hang out with my friends while doing homework? I think that’s the hardest part about having a learning difference, and that’s also part of the reason why I started DyAd, because I felt like this was something that I felt was really pervasive in my life.”

Many students with learning disabilities face the effect of a disability in one area on another. Despite receiving accommodations for mathematics, Brown has seen her learning disability impact her experience in other areas of her course of study. Prerequisites have prevented her from taking desired courses.
“The structure of the school is such that you need to be maintaining a certain GPA in order to take certain classes in certain areas… I would always have this one class that is perpetually a two, where I can’t take other classes. If it’s a study skills issue and a time management issue, it makes a lot of sense and sort of overall makes a lot of sense. But for kids with learning disabilities, it doesn’t matter how much time I’ve put in on my math. It’s going to be the same,” said Brown.

According to Zhao, another aspect of Andover’s culture that can be difficult for students with learning disabilities is the packed schedules that often become the norm for Andover students.

Zhao emphasizes that as a student with ADD it is better for her to focus and not try to do too many extracurricular activities.

“I used to do a lot more than I do now. And that’s not really that great for people with ADD or at least for me as an ADD student, that wasn’t the greatest path. I needed to find focus in my life, and I guess… you could say restrains you from doing a lot. That’s how ADD intrudes in my outside of school life,” Zhao said.

Brown has also found struggles facing the school’s stringent policy to not waive diploma requirements. Despite finding a level of flexibility within the math department, the diploma requirements have provided an added source of stress.

“The math department was as flexible as they can be, but it was still a very daunting graduation requirement. I think the philosophy that [Andover] has is we’re an academically rigorous school, and we expect academic rigor and excellence from our students in all areas. If we have a student that can’t meet the graduation requirement, then this might not be the right place for them,” said Brown.

According to Davison, diploma requirements are adapted according to federal laws. In her opinion, the school is willing to work with students with learning disabilities who are qualified to attend Andover.

“Using the Essential Elements of each diploma requirement as my guiding baseline, Andover adapts its procedures and policies to reflect any changes made to the federal laws governing disability statutes… Any individual who, with reasonable accommodations, is otherwise qualified to attend [Andover] is provided with accommodations. We do not discriminate on the basis of a disability,” said Davison.

Moving forward, Zhao would like to see more teachers experiment with different types of teaching to accomodate students with different learning styles. She thinks that students with learning disabilities can often benefit from alternative classroom environments.

Zhao said, “There’s different types of ways people learn, and one way that I find that’s really great for me as a learner is more hands-on learning, so I think teachers just experimenting with different types of classroom environments. When teachers do that, it makes a huge difference for students with learning differences, but that’s a really small, common route.”

Though Brown noted her understanding of the school’s policy on diploma requirements, she also highlighted what she thinks is a source of contradiction to one of Andover’s core values.

“[Andover] really emphasizes a well-rounded student, but they also emphasize Youth from Every Quarter, and that’s a little bit contradictory in the learning disability lens of things… It’s the difference between an equal education and an equitable education. I think [Andover] tries to make it an equitable education, and they have for me, but it’s been tricky with this framework that they’ve set up,” said Brown.