Leveling the Playing Field: Talking to Learning Specialist Grace Brown


Photo Illustration by Jenny Li

Sam Ko

Matthew Berg ’19 grimaced as his teacher handed his algebra test back to him. His eyes fixated on the red B- and he couldn’t help frowning as he turned the page, the grade bleeding through the paper. But as he reviewed his work, his expression grew less disappointed and more incredulous. As he finished scanning the last page, he realized that the scrawled letter grade was one of the few traces of ink on the paper. Most of his work was left untouched, correct.

Berg had gotten an almost perfect score. That is, on the questions he had finished.

After noticing Berg wasn’t finishing his tests but was getting most of his work right, Berg’s eighth grade math teacher encouraged him to speak to his parents about the possibility of receiving extended time.

To assess whether he qualified for extended time, Berg completed a series of tests with an educational therapist outside of school.

Berg said the tests, which take approximately 10-12 hours distributed over a few days, are similar to IQ tests in format. According to Berg, the exams measured his testing intelligence versus his efficiency. They allowed the specialists to determine the speed at which he processes information and completes work in relation to his output.

After testing, psychologists wrote reports summarizing his test results, as is the common protocol. These analyses accompanied the therapists’ recommendations to the school about the testing accommodations students should receive. Accommodations Harvard-Westlake offers include receiving 50 percent more time for assessments, computer usage for written assignments and allowing students to circle their answers in workbooks instead of using standard bubble sheets.

Now, instead of going off-campus to get evaluated for learning differences, students can visit on-campus Learning Resource Specialist Grace Brown.

The school hired Brown at the beginning of the school year. She has 22 years of experience working as a learning specialist at local schools, including schools specifically for students with learning disabilities. Most recently, she has worked in Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, CT.

Brown helps facilitate extended time by connecting with education therapists who recommend the psychological tests students should take. Harvard-Westlake requires students who are applying for learning accommodations to take the same tests, all of which Brown said follow a set of school standards. These standards follow the ones College Board and other universities use for receiving accommodations, so a student may be able to maintain those accommodations whether they change schools or take standardized tests.

In addition to streamlining the process of receiving learning accommodations, Brown said she is also a daily resource for students, parents and teachers. She meets with students who receive testing accommodations and with members of the community who seek advice about more efficient learning strategies. Brown splits her time between the Upper and Middle Schools, but encourages anyone to approach her or visit her office. She emphasized that students who don’t receive testing accommodations should also feel welcome approaching her with any concerns or questions regarding study skills.

Brown’s hire marks the beginning of the educational therapy program’s expansion. According to Brown, approximately 10 percent of students at the school are diagnosed with a learning disability.
Former Upper School Dean Vanna Cairns had advocated for the expansion of the program throughout her 32 years at the school.

“A learning specialist can help students come up with coping techniques,” Cairns said. She said that psychologists would say, “Okay you have this problem. You’re probably going to have this issue all your life. You have other strengths, but this is your weakness, so let’s figure out coping techniques.”

Brown said that she wants to increase the awareness about students with learning disabilities at the school as she expands the learning specialist program. She said that most students at the school who have learning disabilities may not be aware of them when they are younger, because they compensate for them through other means and have enough time to finish all their work.

When the workload increases and students’ schedules become increasingly more hectic, many become aware that the difficulties that they were mostly handling and ignoring are actually learning disabilities, she said. According to Brown, in these situations, when compared to their peers at school, these students may begin to perform at the lower end of the spectrum without any testing accommodations.

“Statistically speaking, within any population, no matter how high the IQ, ten percent of that student body or even adults are going to have a learning disability or learning difference – a sort of a neurological diversity,” Brown said. “So [in any] school, from the beginning of time, no matter how selective, ten percent of its population [has] what we would now call a learning disability.”

Brown said that students with learning disabilities don’t perform at a lower level when compared to the nationwide student population, even without extended time. because Harvard-Westlake students are already so bright to begin with. She said that it’s important to respect students’ disabilities even though they may already have high-functioning abilities without any accommodations.

“It is important to have [discussions] because then we are acknowledging the neurological differences in every population,” Brown said. “It gets into the bigger issue of diversity and inclusion. It’s really an issue of inclusion.”

The school’s decision to hire Brown follows its pattern of promoting diversity on campus and encouraging students to feel more comfortable in their learning environment.

“For me, at least, it is really hard to focus sometimes,” Oscar* ’19 said. “I was kind of afraid of admitting that I have ADHD because it was a kind of self esteem issue. I thought people would look at me differently. I would have a big confidence issue. But I realized that it was affecting my test scores, so I went to the person and I did some tests and she said I have severe ADHD.”

In addition to helping students come to terms with any disabilities, students with learning differences said they appreciate the practical benefit of being able to properly demonstrate their knowledge. Several students who receive testing accommodations said they believe it is important for the school to offer them so they can accurately display their skills.

“The idea is that teachers make tests that should, at Harvard-Westlake, take at least 45 minutes or a little bit shorter,” Dwight* ’18, who has ADD, said. “But the thing is, for people who should be having extra time, with learning disabilities, it can take longer than the amount of time teachers would normally guarantee for a regular-time student. So [a learning accommodation] levels the playing field because otherwise you can end up leaving a lot of problems blank or having to guess, which isn’t really a test of knowledge, but a test of how quickly you can do something. While that is applicable in the real world – time management is important and how quickly you can do something – it also doesn’t guarantee how well someone knows things.”

Berg, who was diagnosed with ADHD, auditory-processing issues and visual-spacing issues, regularly uses his extended time to complete assignments. He said that even though he still doesn’t always finish his work with the extra time, Berg also appreciates the accommodation because he believes it creates a more level playing field between students with and without learning disabilities.

“I 100 percent support and understand people who have extended time,” Anja Clark ’19, who doesn’t receive extended time, said. “It is not an advantage. It just puts students on a level playing field with everyone else who doesn’t have a disability. Being slightly dyslexic myself, it frustrates me that people think that extra time is an unfair advantage.”

Brown remains optimistic about the future of the program and will use her experience creating similar programs at other independent schools to do the same at Harvard-Westlake.

Brown maintains that she is aware that some people may have negative preconceived notions about students who receive extended time or who struggle with learning disabilities. She said she aims to raise awareness about the school’s “10 percent” and help diffuse stigmas about the program or the extended time process.

“This position isn’t to attract a different student body, but to support the one we already have,” Brown said.

According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, approximately three million students receive special education accommodations due to learning disabilities. In 1990, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act was passed, requiring schools to provide students with learning disabilities with “an individualized education plan,” and active parents to help them devise an education plan with their school.

As part of her new position, Brown will also work with adults. She directly contacts students’ teachers and recommends their learning difference accommodations. For example, current students who receive extended time use the Silent Study area in the library to take their exams. Brown hopes that in the future, the school can incorporate a common space such as a writing lab or a learning center where students can peer tutor or have discussions with teachers.

She will also maintain her duties as a specialist and aid students, whether they have a learning disability or not, to achieve their potential in class.

“We’re honoring the fact that not everybody learns the same, that not everybody processes at the same speed,” Brown said. “That’s where extended time comes from. They can still think at that high level. They can still be incredibly intelligent, creative contributors to the environment. They just do it differently.”

*Names have been changed.