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Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008 11:56 pm

Learning ability

Injured Rochester student to receive special education services

A seven-month-long fight with Rochester School District has ended for Colleen and Bill Dracos, of Springfield, who sought special learning accommodations for their daughter who has a learning disability.

The district has agreed to purchase a computer software program that helps students with reading skills and a speech therapist to work with the child during the school day, the Dracoses say.

"What we obtained on Sept. 29, 2008, in 45 minutes, was the only complete accommodation we wanted. That accommodation cost $3,700," Colleen says.

The agreement with the district came just days before the one-year anniversary of the injury their daughter suffered, which occurred when the then-third grader fell and hit her head on a fire hydrant on the playground at Rochester Elementary School.

"It wasn't an accident. It was an accident waiting to happen," Bill Dracos says.

The Dracoses became concerned when their daughter began having difficulty in school after the incident. So in February, they took their daughter to see audiologist David Groesch, who concluded that the child had "significant central auditory processing problems," meaning she can't identify certain sounds and also has difficulty with auditory comprehension and speech articulation, as well as language, reading and spelling. The specialist also recommended the child immediately receive special-education services and begin rebuilding her skills using educational computer games.

Federal law requires that special services be provided for people with learning disabilities, but the question of who would pay for it appeared to become a sticking point.

In May, the Sangamon Area Special Education District, a cooperative of 16 local districts, denied the Dracos' daughter special education services, the parents say.

"There must be a pronounced academic failure. She's not eligible because her scores are average, but that's because the parents are working with her on their own," explains Bill Alexander, the child's designated advocate and a former principal. "So do they stop and let her scores drop? If parents stop therapy, her disability would get worse and possibly become permanent."

Later that month, the parents sought accommodations under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, again unsuccessfully. That ADA provision stipulates that disabled people can't be denied federal funding, including public education.

Alexander says he's assisted 17 families in navigating and understanding how local educational bureaucracies work, and says the Dracos's case has been the most challenging. However, he doesn't believe the district wanted to harm the Dracos's daughter.

"The goal is services for [the child], not to hurt anybody," says Alexander, who served as a liaison between the Dracoses and the school district.

Alexander adds that the school has changed its playground procedures since the Dracos's child was hurt, including covering the dangerous hydrants.

In the meantime, Colleen Dracos spends two hours each night working with her daughter so that the girl doesn't fall too far behind her classmates.

"She comes home frustrated and says 'Whatever is going on, I just want it to stop,'" Colleen says. Phone messages left for Rochester schools superintendent Dr. Thomas Bertrand seeking comment for this story were not returned.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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