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Determination paves difficult path to college

More special-needs students seeking studies with support

The question is not whether Christine Logan will head off to college, but rather which passion she will pursue.

The Wakefield teenager became fascinated with forensics after getting hooked on the TV crime show ''CSI" and now thinks law enforcement might be the way to go. But Logan, 16, also is captivated by children -- she is the most popular baby sitter on the block -- and is considering a teaching career, too.

One factor is certain. Logan, who has dyslexia, will have to navigate a difficult path in her search for the perfect school. But she is determined.

''I don't think you should limit what you can do because you have a certain disorder," said Logan, who is an honor-roll student, soccer player, and passionate shoe shopper.

While once it was uncommon to see special-needs students heading off to college, sweeping changes in civil rights laws since the 1970s and more recent medical advances have combined to open the gates of higher education, according to the US Department of Education. Over the past two decades, the percentage of college-bound young adults with disabilities more than doubled nationwide, from 15 percent in 1987 to 32 percent in 2003, the latest data available from the department.

With more disabled students choosing higher education, educators and advocates say they are increasingly facing questions from families about the very different services and sets of rules students face when they enter college. While federal law entitles children with disabilities to a publicly financed education through high school -- complete with tutors, evaluations, and additional supports -- the laws do not require colleges and other post-secondary schools to provide the same services.

Instead, students are required to take the lead, identifying themselves as disabled, documenting their disabilities, and identifying the services they will need. Then, colleges and vocational schools are required only to provide ''appropriate academic adjustments as necessary" to ensure they do not discriminate on the basis of disability. Some colleges charge extra for some services, such as tutoring.

''Higher education, in general, is considered a privilege," said Carrie Kutny, enrollment services counselor at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill.

''On the high school level, teachers are required to alter their teaching style in some way to accommodate students with special needs, whereas a college professor is not required to do that."

Over the past four years, Northern Essex has recorded a 53 percent increase in the number of students with documented disabilities who sought extra help from the Learning Accommodations Center at the college's Haverhill and Lawrence campuses. The help, including note-takers, classroom aides, and special computer software, is provided at no charge to eligible students.

Claudette Logan is nervous about the prospect of her daughter leaving a system where help is readily available for her dyslexia, especially considering Christine's recent introduction to the college application process.

Christine, a sophomore at Wakefield High School, took the Preliminary Scholastic Achievement Test in October and did poorly. Under the rules, a student with dyslexia can ask for accommodations, such as having someone read the test out loud and receiving extra time to complete the exam. But the Logans were not aware of that.

Now, they have filed the necessary paperwork for Christine to receive help during future college entrance exams. And they are aggressively seeking information about the application process for special-needs students.

''I don't know what other kinds of things we may need to file for or do, but I don't want to wait," said Claudette Logan.

In Boxford, Lisa Anastos is helping her son, Nicholas, consider his options. Nicholas, 17, a junior at Masconomet Regional High School, has been diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disorder. He has trouble connecting concepts, like relating one event in history with another. He also has a language disorder that makes it difficult for him to remember names.

''I know Nicholas really wants to go to college; he has a real hunger for learning," Anastos said.

But learning does not come easily for Nicholas. Last fall, he signed up for a driver education course, which met four times a week and covered three chapters weekly. He failed, and signed up again.

''It took studying with him an hour and a half a day, seven days a week, and he passed the darn thing," Anastos said. ''He is determined. He loves science. He loves history. He knows lots of factual things. His favorite channel is the History Channel."

Yet a four-year college probably would be overwhelming for Nicholas, Anastos said.

''Even North Shore Community College, with a boatload of courses all at once, I don't see him doing," she said. ''I could see him doing one or two courses with a lot of support."

Right now, the family is awaiting updated neurological tests that may better determine which path Nicholas seeks.

Updated evaluations are important for special-needs students who are considering higher education because most colleges and vocational schools require current documentation of a disability in order for a student to be eligible for accommodations, such as extra time during exams, priority registration, and reduced course loads.

Federal law requires that high schools provide special education students with a kind of blueprint for life after graduation, called transition planning. The law requires the planning to be part of a student's Individualized Education Program, a key document that spells out annual goals and describes how those goals will be measured.

But special needs students are not the only ones who can struggle with transition planning. Their parents often do, too, specialists say.

Many have worked hard to get an accurate diagnosis and the necessary services for their child, then worked hard for years helping them study through high school.

''There is always that push and pull, to promote the greatest amount of growth but also the greatest amount of independence," said Debra Bromfield, special-education director at the Masconomet Regional School District in Boxford. ''Our goal in education is to give students all the tools that they need so they can implement them themselves to be successful."

While special-needs students and their families might be tempted to consider colleges largely based on the services they can provide, specialists say it is a mistake to cast such a narrow net. Their advice is to look at the whole package, including the academics, athletics, extracurricular programs, and special-needs services, because ultimately that will provide a better match.

Consider the experience of Amy O'Dowd, 19, a avid cross-country runner who has dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. She graduated from Masconomet last year. O'Dowd scrutinized the programs and special-needs services at five colleges before settling on New England College in Henniker, N.H., where she receives free tutoring but must pay for extra mentoring services.

Her reason for finally selecting New England College?

''I liked the cross-country program."

For more information about postsecondary education planning, visit www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/transition.html or the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition at www.ncset.org.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com

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