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The Diploma For What?


Samantha Green, with six years experience as a teacher in a residential program, begins her first year as a special education teacher at Tanglewood High School. She quickly learns that her 15-year-old bilingual student, Maria, can read only four words. Both teacher and student are frustrated by the obstacles they face.


This is Samantha Green’s first year as a special education teacher at Tanglewood High School. She had taught at a residential treatment program for adolescents with severe emotional handicaps for six years before coming to Tanglewood. This year, Samantha would teach science, English, and world history classes for students with learning disabilities.

As the school year began, Samantha was looking forward to her new role. The first week of school went well and Samantha enjoyed meeting and getting to know all of her students. The second week of school did not start off as well. As the bell rang for second period, Samantha’s English class, she began covering the day’s material. As she looked around the classroom she saw Maria, one of her students, crying at her desk. Samantha decided to give the class a practice exercise that they could do independently so she could talk to Maria to find out what was wrong. As the class began to work, Samantha went over to Maria’s desk.

"What’s wrong, Maria?"

"These words, I have to learn them for Biology class," Maria said as she pointed to a paper on her desk.

"Let’s see. What is the first word?" asked Samantha as she pointed to the word photosynthesis.

"I don’t know," sobbed Maria.

"Can you read any of these words?" questioned Samantha.

"No," replied Maria as she covered her tear-soaked face with her hands.

Samantha put her hand on Maria’s shoulder and reassured her that she would help her in any way she could and it would be okay. Samantha then went over to her files and pulled out a Fry Word List. She took it over to Maria’s desk and asked Maria to read all the words she knew on the list. As she looked at the list, she only knew four words: and, the, but, and go. Samantha was shocked, but she was careful not to let Maria see her reaction.

"If you would like, Maria, we can work every day on some reading skills that I think would help you."

"Yes, I want to learn to read and write," Maria said with a hopeful look on her face.

"Good, we can work on two new words today. This is the word here and this is the word make," Samantha said as she pointed to the words on the word list. Samantha then wrote the words on a piece of paper and had Maria point to the words and pronounce them. As Maria said the words, a smile lit up her face. Samantha then had Maria write the words on the same paper.

"You did a great job, Maria. Can you write all the letters of the alphabet below the words you just wrote?"

"Yes," Maria responded as she began to write.

After Maria had written all the letters, Samantha began to point to individual letters and asked her what sound each letter made. Maria knew only about half of the sounds.

"Well, Maria, this is a good start. Why don’t you take home this magazine and try to find the new words you learned today in it," Samantha said as she handed her a magazine from the classroom bookshelf.

"Oh no, I couldn’t," responded Maria.

"Why not?" Samantha asked with a puzzled look on her face.

"My parents would think that was a waste of time. They say that it is only important that I learn how to take care of a house and raise children. They don’t even like it that I come to school."

"Well, maybe you could explain to them that you would really like to learn to read and write," Samantha suggested.

"I have.  They just say that they do not want me to waste my time on that. They say that it is just not important for me."

"What do you think, Maria? Do you think it is important?"

"Yes," replied Maria in a hesitant tone. Samantha could tell from the hesitation in Maria’s voice that she was feeling conflicted between what she wanted for herself and what her parents wanted for her.

"I understand. Maybe we can work on your reading skills in this class and see how it goes."

Maria smiled and Samantha began circulating around the class to help the other students. When her planning period came, Samantha went down to the office to pull Maria’s records. She found very little information in Maria’s file. Maria was 15 years old and had emigrated with her family from Mexico two years ago. Maria’s parents spoke only Spanish. Maria spoke Spanish and could speak English well enough to carry on basic conversations. She had completed only the second grade in Mexico. When she came to the United States, she was enrolled in a local junior high school. She was assessed and placed in classes for learning disabled students. Samantha could find very little information on why she was placed other than statements about her poor performance in school. The assessment data were missing from the file. Samantha asked the school secretary about the missing data.

"You know, the special education teacher last year had the same question but was never able to find anything. She even looked in the county level files," answered the secretary.

Samantha shook her head and continued to look through Maria’s file as she walked back to the file room. Samantha found that it was also unclear what progress had been made with Maria the previous year. Both her caseload teacher and her teacher in the learning disabilities class had left the school at the end of the previous year to take other positions. They left incomplete records that were not very helpful.

Samantha decided to talk to Janet Coss, Maria’s new caseload teacher. It was Janet’s responsibility to oversee Maria’s program and act as a liaison among all of Maria’s teachers. Samantha walked into Janet’s office. Janet greeted her and said, "What can I do for you?"

"How much do you know about Maria Gonzalez?" asked Samantha.

"Not very much, I’m afraid. She is taking Biology and Math with the bilingual teacher. She is taking History and English with you, and she is also taking PE and Home Economics. Her records are not very complete so I’m not sure about her progress since she came here."

"I know, I just pulled her records," Samantha said. She then went on to tell Janet about what had happened in second period.

"I had no idea she was functioning that low," replied Janet.

"Yes, and I think that Maria really needs more support from the bilingual teacher."

"I agree, but I don’t think that is going to happen. I talked to her last week about another student and she made it very clear that it was her responsibility to cover the curriculum in her classes and nothing else. She will cover the Biology and Math curriculum with Maria, but she is not going to do anything about helping Maria with her reading and writing. I think what you are doing with her is good and you should keep that up. Other than that, I don’t know what else we can do."

Samantha asked, "Is there anything else you can do?"

"Not really. I’ll try talking to the bilingual teacher, but I know it won’t do any good," Janet replied.

"Well, let me know if you come up with anything," Samantha said as she left Janet’s office. As Samantha went back to her classroom, she was frustrated with the situation and annoyed that Janet was not willing to take a more active role in Maria’s case.  She felt that Maria's other teachers should be doing more to meet Maria's needs and Janet should be facilitating that.

As the weeks went on, Samantha continued to work with Maria on basic reading and writing skills. She also modified the curriculum in history and English so that Maria could participate and learn the concepts without having to read or write. She tape-recorded the readings for Maria in history and had Maria tape-record her answers to practice exercises and tests in both of the classes. Maria was making some progress but it was very slow. "At this rate," Samantha thought, "Maria will graduate with a special education diploma, but will have only basic reading and writing skills and will have mastered only a few concepts from any of her classes. What good will that do her?" As she pondered the situation further, she knew that another avenue would have to be found for Maria. "Maybe vocational training," Samantha reasoned. "That would give her a skill she could use and she could continue to work on her reading and writing skills."

Samantha discussed the possibility with Janet. Janet agreed that it was a good idea but added, "You’ll have to discuss it with Maria though and make sure it is something she wants to do. We also will need her parents' permission."

As Samantha left Janet’s office she was again annoyed that Janet was not being more helpful. Samantha thought it should be Janet’s responsibility to talk to Maria and get permission from the parents. Samantha had agreed to talk to Maria however, because she had developed a relationship with her and was not sure that Maria would be comfortable talking to Janet.

The next day Samantha discussed the possibility of vocational training with Maria. She explained that the training would involve placing her in a job in the community and that she could continue working on her reading and writing skills.

Maria shook her head and said, "I can’t do that, Ms. Green. I’m an illegal alien (undocumented immigrant). I can’t get a regular job. I can’t even get a green card."

Samantha was stuck. "What is going to happen to Maria?" she thought. "What can I do?"


Discussion/Study Questions

List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.

What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?

What are the issues/problems in the case.

Additional Questions

What are the implications of the lack of assessment documentation and progress updates in regard to Maria's records?

Do you think that Maria was correctly identified as learning disabled?

What do you think was Janet's (the caseload teacher) and the bilingual teacher's perception of Maria's predicament? What issues could have been influencing their lack of support to Samantha and Maria?

Should Samantha intervene on Maria's behalf with her parents in regard to their attitude towards education for their daughter? Is it a teacher's responsibility to deal with such cultural conflicts and, if so, how should the matter be approached?

What types of modifications and remedial methods did Samantha try with Maria? Were they successful? Why or why not? 

What do you think Maria's other teachers could be doing to meet Maria's needs?


CEC Competencies/Knowledge Areas Addressed In The Case


Major Areas:

Variations in beliefs, traditions, and values across cultures within society and the effects of the relationships between child, family, and schooling.

Rights and responsibilities of parents, students, teachers, and schools as they relate to individuals with exceptional learning needs.

Other Areas:

Instructional and remedial methods, techniques, and curriculum materials.

Techniques for modifying instructional methods and materials.

Influence of diversity on assessment, eligibility, programming, and placement of exceptional learners.


TN00605A.gif (2512 bytes) For information about meeting the needs of Mexican immigrants in high school

globe.gif (2512 bytes) For information about undocumented children in American schools

globe.gif (2512 bytes) To the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education


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