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Success Stories >> Sterling Henry’s Story

Told by his mother, Karen Wills-Henry, with comments from Sterling Henry

Sterling Henry's Photo Mr. Sterling Henry is a 2009 graduate of Cardozo High School in Washington, DC, where he finished in the top 10 percent of his class and was in the National Honor Society. His academic achievements are even more impressive because he has both dyslexia and dysgraphia, which make reading and writing a significant challenge. Mr. Henry's main interest is world history and he also enjoys classic literature, such as The Dogs of War and American Psycho. Mr. Henry is currently attending Landmark College in VT, which is is one of the only accredited colleges in the United States designed exclusively for students with dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), or other specific learning disabilities. Mr. Henry has a three-part recommendation for parents of kids with disabilities: 1) Help them. Tell them they are smart can achieve anything. 2) Read to them to give them education and culture. 3) Apply to RSA to get available technology and resources.

Sterling's advice for students:

Go to class. Make sure the teacher knows you and knows if you're having trouble. Force the issue. Keep asking questions. Keep asking for help wherever you can get it. It doesn't matter how you get it as long as you get it.

Understanding Learning Disabilities and Intelligence

A lot of Sterling's success comes from believing in himself. When he was very little, people told me I shouldn't tell him that he had a learning disability, but I thought that didn't make any sense. I needed to tell him because he knew something was wrong...he just didn't know what. When I told him in the second or third grade, he looked at me like, "Whew! OK, so that's it. I'm not stupid." I tried to give it to him on his level, and that enabled him to slowly but surely articulate what his issues were in the classroom and ask for the kinds of things that he needed. But more importantly, he never gave up on himself because he understood that there was a reason why he was so challenged. If all kids feel is the challenge, difficulties, and failures and do not have any real understanding of why, they give up.

    Sterling comments: Some people say my experience makes a powerful story, but to me it just seemed normal. Everyone should get the help and support that I did. It's not really anything over the top. I was about eight when I realized something was wrong. Other students were learning to read. I couldn't, and I was very angry. Now? I'm still frustrated and angry.

We both believed in his intelligence. He was obsessed with animals when he was little. I remember pointing to a picture of a platypus and asking, "Sterling, what's that?" He said, "It's a monotreme. You know, an egg-laying mammal? Related to the echidna." He looked at me like I was silly for not understanding the term "monotreme."

Becoming an Expert

For me it's been a learning process from the beginning to the end. In the beginning, you don't know what you don't know, and so you trust the experts. You can only articulate what you see going on with your child, but you don't know the technical words. When he was in the first grade, I tried to explain to his teacher, "He knows all his letters and their sounds, but he never puts them together." Teachers kept saying, "Stop worrying about him, Mom. He'll grow into it." Even to this day no one in the school system has said, "Sterling is dyslexic. Sterling is dysgraphic." I'm the one that tells them, from my reading, research, and observations and working with Sterling constantly year after year and testing things out with him. I tell them how it will manifest itself in the classroom.

I don't have a degree, so they may not want to listen to me, but I have a strong and confident personality, so I insist they listen. I don't back down and I push, but in a respectful way. People in the schools have to be generalists. I have to get them to accept me as a specialist in my kid and his needs. I tell parents, "First, you've got to know your own child; then you have to learn your child's disability and how it impacts him." I know it sounds like a lot, but it is doable.

When Sterling was six months old, a doctor told me something that became my mantra. He was very premature and severely developmentally delayed at the time. They did a CAT scan of Sterling's brain, and at the follow-up she said, "Now Mother, don't worry about what the picture looks like. Look at the child. Stay focused on the child." So I don't worry about labels. Just stay focused on what the individual child needs. If we did that for each and every child, we'd be doing a lot better in this school system.

Invisible Disabilities

It started with sitting and watching my son and letting him take the lead in doing things. It started with doing things I know he absolutely hated to do. I would put a composition booklet in front of him, give him a pencil, dictate, and say "Just write what you think you hear." That led me to see where his issues really were, that, one, he wasn't hearing what I was saying, which I learned later was "phonemic awareness," and two, he couldn't write, and I learned a fancy term for that too. So by practicing certain things with him and getting on the Internet and going to the library, I learned the right terminology to use when I sat down with educators. They can't hear common language descriptions. It's up to the parent to learn the jargon that teachers understand.

We get so caught up on the reading and writing levels. When Sterling got really frustrated with himself, I explained to him when I was in school, everybody thought I was brilliant because I could read and write very well. Society has a high respect for that type of intelligence. Just because you lack that kind of print word power doesn't mean you aren't just as intelligent as anyone else. Society just happens to be biased that way, so we're going to work around that. A lot of kids who are learning disabled are held back by that bias of society. If you can read on only the second grade level, they give you only second grade work. We weren't going to let that happen to Sterling. We had to stress that over and over again especially when he got to high school. His inability to read this history text book has nothing to do with his ability to understand it and then articulate it back to you. So it's hard getting people to understand that a learning disability like dyslexia and dysgraphia—an invisible disability—is a true disability.

I hear people say they don't think a certain child can get a high school diploma because they are "functioning" on only a third-grade level. They really mean the child is reading at the third-grade level, which is a totally different thing. Teachers use the word "function" when they are talking to parents, and the parents think, "That's as far as my child can go." We need to correct that miscommunication. You can be reading at the third-grade level and still go a lot further than that.

When Sterling was a freshman, I told the Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher, "You might get my son one day. He loves history and is looking forward to taking some AP history classes. He's going to be a bit of a challenge because he's learning disabled." And he said, "But if he's learning disabled, how can he learn anything?" I found myself explaining many times the fact that he's not going to be able to read something doesn't mean he isn't going to be able to understand it. By the time he finished, they were impressed with his work ethic and the fact that he really does understand all these things.

    Sterling comments: Probably my biggest accomplishment in school was being in the top 10 in my class and making the National Honor Society, but the things I know most about, I learned on my own, not in school. I like world history. The Mongolian Period is my favorite. That was a fun time. Genghis Khan first had to unify the tribes; then he created the largest land empire ever in just in one generation.

Establishing IEPs and Accommodations

Some schools were good for Sterling and some were disasters. He had teachers who said they didn't have time to even read his IEP. He entered the first grade wanting to be President of the United States and came out thinking he could only be a pizza delivery person. I asked his teacher if she could recommend a second-grade teacher who would work with Sterling, and she said, "Nobody's going to have time to work with him." I should thank her because that's when my radicalization began. When he made no progress in reading level after two years at Prospect Learning Center, I told them they were going to send him to a summer program before he went to high school, and that's when he went to Lindamood-Bell. We never had to use due process because I good at arguing my case and willing to compromise.

When Sterling would go to a new setting, I would work with the school. When he got to high school, we had to rely more on the IEP meetings. I'd find his teachers' free period and go introduce myself the first day of school and talk about Sterling's issues and what they were going to see in the classroom. I gave them my cell phone number and e-mail address and asked them to contact me any time something popped up that they didn't understand. I made myself the expert for them to refer to rather than the special ed coordinator. They have a lot of kids to keep track of and can't be the expert on every one of them. I tried to have a good relationship with his teachers, and we would have informal strategy sessions when some new problem came up. The IEP meetings would include his case manager, his occupational therapist, one special ed teacher, and another teacher. Usually, I would request one to come that I thought could give most to the conversation. I always did a kind of agenda for the meetings. On occasion I asked for a different case manager or different teachers if it just wasn't working. Parents need to feel empowered to do that. Cardozo had a bigger special ed staff than some schools, but Sterling's case manager often had to help students who didn't manage on their own as well as Sterling. Dual-certified teachers are still my dream.

When Sterling was in the ninth grade, I asked another school psychologist to come and observe Sterling in all of his classes. I had already done so, but I wanted someone else to make sure that I had asked for all of the accommodations that I needed to ask for. When it was over, she talked to some of his teachers and wrote a report saying she didn't think everyone realized how disabled Sterling was: "He confuses people. They listen to him talk articulately and don't understand that he can't write a paragraph for them. You have to explain to them, ‘This is a disability, and this is what it looks like. You have to give Sterling the same accommodations you would give to a student who had no eyes and hands.'"

Out of necessity, he became an auditory learner. He would sit near the front and stay very focused while the teacher was talking. He would ask lots of questions at the end. He did have a digital recorder. If a question came to his mind later, he would record the question and ask it the next day. They used a wide range of methods depending on how much time they had to deal with it. A couple of teachers would, two or three times a week sometimes, stay after and let Sterling finish questions and class assignments. They went the extra mile because he was also willing. Some teachers tested him orally while the rest of the class was writing. Most had someone, usually his case manager, come in and read to him and he would dictate his answer. That one made the most sense because he could finish in the same time. There were teachers who felt it wasn't really coming from him unless he wrote it himself. One English final took him three hours to finish, but his teacher was thrilled to report he got an A. Occasionally, but not often, they would make a modification in the actual assignment, like ask him to write half as much.

    Sterling comments: I went to some of my IEP meetings but didn't always fully understand. My learning disabilities make reading and writing hard, so in school I would sometimes dictate my answers and I had unlimited time for tests. It would have helped if there was more stuff available. I didn't get very helpful technology until I went to college.

Using the right technology regularly in our schools would help so many students. Unfortunately, so much of what the student gets depends on what the parent knows. At Landmark there are people who understand the technology much better and were able to get it working for him. Now he has Kurzwell, so he can scan documents and turn them into text. In high school they had to make other accommodations like adjusting assignments. Reading is something that did work on his computer, something called Read:OutLoud. For instance his science teachers would download class notes onto his computer to read for him. He had a laptop with word predictability software, which gives you a word bank to choose from after the first couple of letters so you don't have to type the whole thing out. Write:OutLoud reads back to you as you are going along so it allows you to self-edit.

The other big accommodation was Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic providing his textbooks. He'd get a CD-ROM of the text book. I had to get the ISBN's and order because no one at the school actually knew how to do it. There are easier to use systems now that Sterling can use himself for free. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic charges a fee, but Sterling had sort of a scholarship. DCPS had an arrangement with them at one time, but it wasn't maintained. I had to order his textbooks myself. When Sterling started, the special ed coordinator didn't know how to do everything she should have. When time came for him to take the College Boards, I went to her office and sat with her and helped her fill out the application for him to get accommodations for the test because she had never done it before. The AP test turned out to be an absolute disaster—the woman who proctored it for him apologized afterwards. Because it was statistics, she didn't understand what she was reading, and she knew it was throwing him off.

Navigating High School

Sterling's success in high school was pretty outstanding. I wanted to enroll him in a junior high school after he finished Prospect Learning Center. He'd always been in small and special education settings, so his starting high school was kind of terrifying for me. Someone from DCPS talked to me for over two hours to convince me to let him go to high school.

When he got his schedule, it wasn't sequential and the font was tiny, so I retyped it. The next thing I knew he asked if I could do it for a couple of his friends. Then he tried to charge them a dollar each for it. I was making him great healthy lunches, and one day a teacher asked when I was going to make that great roast beef again. He had sold his lunch to her so that he could buy the pizza and still have some profit. Then I realized my baby was going to be just fine. I thought I was sending my little guppy into the shark tank, and it turns out he's the shark.

Ninth grade was a year-long IEP meeting. We went back every month to ask for something else. For example, Sterling's writing is affected by his mild cerebral palsy. We needed to figure out better remediations and accommodations to help him. They kept wanting to test his IQ and were offended that I would suggest different tests to them. DCPS thought that if they could classify him as mentally retarded, they wouldn't have to give him all of the accommodations I was asking for. It shouldn't matter. I told them, "You can label him MR if you want to, but you're still going to have to accommodate his learning disabilities."

After a year, I stopped worrying about him so much. There were a lot of teachers and the dean of students who were looking out for him, making sure he was blending in well. But more importantly, he kind of took off and was really adamant with his teachers about making sure that he got all of his work done, asking for the extra time and help that that he needed, and right away he started doing very well academically. By the end of his junior year he got the unofficial class rank and he was number four. He kept trying to figure out who numbers one, two, and three were so he could overtake them. He dropped a little but still finished at number eight and had been inducted into the National Honor Society.

That was a bit of a challenge. His nomination was controversial. There was some resistance to having a special ed student recognized that way. Some of his teachers that had nominated him told him, "Yeah, Sterling, they're really fighting it, but we're pushing it." That was really funny. It just showed that students in special education and students with disabilities are still seen as "less than." I think there may have been some view that if a special ed student was able to be in the National Honor Society then perhaps their standards weren't high enough. His math classes were taught by a teacher who was dually certified, so even though he got all A's in algebra I and II, geometry, and trigonometry, he wasn't recognized or honored when they honored the students who did the best in math. I explained to him, "Your teacher was viewed differently because he taught special ed students. Stuff his students like you do won't get recognized." We kept up his spirits and let him know that he was going to hit up against that sometime, not to let it bother him. The social studies department did honor him as one of their outstanding students. His math average was higher, but that department head wasn't going to allow him to be honored. When she asked that he be removed from her precalculus class. I said, "You have the opportunity to teach a child with special needs who is willing to go all the way with you on this. The class after this is going to be required to take four maths. They are requiring that kids with disabilities get diplomas, not just certificates. So you're going to end up with these kids in your class. This is your best chance while the class size is still small to learn how to work with a child with his kinds of disabilities, how to do accommodations and modifications. You're missing your best opportunity to learn how to work with them." I still think it was her loss.

Considering College

Sterling always said he was going to college. It never occurred to him not to. So I started early looking to see what was out there for him in terms of college. He needed an IEP all the way through high school and still needed a lot of accommodations and support, and I didn't see that changing any time soon. Trying to find a college atmosphere where he would get that kind of support was a challenge. The first one to pop up was Landmark, because it is a specialized two-year school for kids with severe learning disabilities. That put it way down on his list because he said, "I'm through with special ed. I don't want to keep doing the special ed thing."

He toured several colleges and picked out Florida A&M. After several phone calls with the Center for Disability Access and Resources people, we decided to let him go. He went for a summer program and his work ethic held up, but he felt like he wasn't getting the level of support that he really needed. Because of a little fluke with housing, he ended up not going there in the fall and instead went to Landmark in the spring. The difference has been incredible. He is absolutely loving Landmark. He is using the technology that's available and gaining a lot of confidence. If he finishes the program and gets their associates degree, I think he will be able to go almost anywhere. They help you find the right match and make the transition. His advisor called to rave about how brilliant they think he is. They think he is going to go all the way and get a Ph.D.! It's a very supportive school for both the students and the families. I really recommend it.

    Sterling comments: The Rehabilitation Services Administration is paying for part of my schooling. Landmark is a good two-year college, specifically for people with disabilities. I'd recommend it. It's very small, only 500 students. At college orientations, it's standard to say, "Look to your left and right. One of those people will be gone by the end of the year." At Landmark, they said, "We don't think like that. We think all of you should succeed." They make sure we have what we need, like Write:OutLoud software that reads text to you and Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I am thinking of majoring in anthropology and want to get at least a master's degree, maybe a doctorate. I'll stay in school as long as it takes.

What I would really like to see is for more of our secondary teachers here go to a school like that just to see the techniques they use in the classroom, the differentiated instruction, the kinds of technology they use. If we did more of that on a high school level, more of our students would certainly be able to go on to college. Our percentages are definitely not where they should be. Some people say I am too focused on transitioning to college, but the average special ed student in DC has a learning disability or an emotional dysfunction; the cognitive ability is there.

Resources and Support

You can find lots of information on the Internet. Usually online reading would lead me to a print source. Sally Shaywitz' book about dyslexia is good one, and a professor at Yale wrote another. I made lots notes and took definitions and ways to explain things to Sterling to the IEP team meetings. I drove some of those people absolutely crazy.

My favorite conference was probably the International Dyslexia Association. I found them much more helpful than the Learning Disabilities Association. Any time they're anywhere nearby, I try to go. They a have a day for parents, and I made a lot of good contacts there. Reading is another thing I learned a lot about. Lindamood-Bell is a program that I tout highly. In that program one summer Sterling was finally able to begin to do some reading. I found them through reading and research.

Advice for Parents, Teachers, and Kids?

For parents, as I said before, the first thing is to get to know your child. I know that sounds silly, but a lot of parents don't. And then you try to understand the disability and how it impacts your child. Don't give your child over to the experts—the lawyers, advocates, and teachers. You have to take responsibility and trust yourself. A lot of parents lack confidence because they didn't have a certain kind of education. They think they are not capable of understanding, but they are. Find other parents who can mentor you, parents who have been successful. There are plenty out there who would be willing.

    Sterling's advice for parents of kids with disabilities: Help them; tell them they're smart and can achieve anything. Until your kids can read, read to them and get talking books so they can still get an education and culture. Apply for RSA so you can get available technology.

For teachers, I would say acknowledge the fact that in some cases the parents are the specialists and you should listen to them. They may not have degree in education as you do, but they have that one child and probably know him better than you do, so you need to be respectful. If you have some information, share it with the parents, and be willing to listen when they have information to share with for you.

    Sterling's advice for teachers: Appeal to the students' ambition: greed for power or earnings. Say, "Learning this is on today's checklist for achieving your goals."

And for the kids, take ownership of your own education. We sometimes encourage dependency in students with special needs. They need to take charge and demand from their teachers what the teachers aren't necessarily giving willingly. Teachers may shudder at the thought of more demanding students, but those are the ones you want, the ones who want to succeed. Sterling was an inspiration to a lot of his teachers, to other students, and in a lot of ways to us.

    Sterling's advice for students: Go to class. Make sure the teacher knows you and knows if you're having trouble. Force the issue. Keep asking questions. Keep asking for help wherever you can get it. It doesn't matter how you get it as long as you get it.

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