Senior shares learning struggles

By all appearances, Emerald Schultz has everything going for her. She’s an 18-year-old high school senior with good grades, takes advanced-placement classes and serves as the captain of her school’s cheer team. She’s also the editor of her school’s yearbook, sings the national anthem at sporting events and performs at weddings and funerals. If that’s not enough, her drama resumé includes appearances in two TV commercials.

By all appearances, Emerald Schultz has everything going for her. She’s an 18-year-old high school senior with good grades, takes advanced-placement classes and serves as the captain of her school’s cheer team. She’s also the editor of her school’s yearbook, sings the national anthem at sporting events and performs at weddings and funerals. If that’s not enough, her drama resumé includes appearances in two TV commercials.

But beneath the Bonney Lake High letterman’s jacket is a student who has struggled through most of her school life with a learning disability that, until last year, appeared to have gone undiagnosed by the academic world.

Emerald has dyscalculia – a disability making it difficult to calculate numbers, dates, times and facts – her mother, Denise Schultz said.

“All of her childhood life, she’s said to me, ‘Mom, I think I have a problem,’” she said.

Emerald said the problem first became prominent as a fourth-grader when even the simplest assignments seemed beyond her grasp.

“My teacher tried to teach me the class lessons in different methods and then I understood them,” she said. “I could go to her and she’d break it down to me, maybe in another way she didn’t present it to the class.”

But the struggles continued into junior high. Frustrations grew when she said teachers told her they could not “focus all of their attention on me when there were other students who needed help in the class as well,” she wrote in an essay. “It made me feel stupid and incompetent. I continued to fall behind and felt humiliated.”

She could pass the DRP (Degrees of Reading Power) test and write papers, but still received low test scores. Then, the problems culminated in high school when she was evaluated for eligibility for the state’s special education services.

“The school said they were sorry they didn’t catch it early,” her mom said.

Districts within the state are required to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. An individual education program (IEP) is established once an evaluation for eligibility reveals the student is learning-disabled and falls under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“Our schools and our district comply with all state and federal guidelines regarding serving students with disabilities,” Sumner School District Communications Director Ann Cook said. “Families of children with delays or developmental needs are encouraged to contact their school principal for further assistance.”

Doug Gill, director of special education for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said of the roughly 1 million students in the state, “123,000 are special-ed and roughly 40 percent of that are learning-disabled.”

The curriculum wasn’t applied until three months later and even then, Emerald’s struggles continued when staff questioned her request for extra help, Denise Schultz said.

“They’d say, ‘you went through the year – why do you now have (an IEP)?’ and she said, ‘really – I was tested and I do have a learning disability,’” her mother said.

Schultz’s essay reflected her frustration.

“The questions arose: why should I have accommodations so late in my education process?… I found out I was being called a liar,” she wrote.

The accusations stung.

“You’re supposed to feel safe in school and this was like a slap in the face,” she said. “It was like, ‘oh, you don’t believe me at all.”

“It’s her view – I didn’t go to school with her,” her mom said of the essay. “I didn’t know what teachers and students said to her. When she wouldn’t catch on, their reactions were, ‘you’re faking it. You’re trying to use the system.’”

Although Emerald now reaps the benefits of applying the IEP to her studies – she has all As in her classes, she said – the struggles continued this fall when she attempted to run for Daffodil Princess but was turned down by a festival representative who failed to recognize her learning disability, she said.

“Since it’s a scholarship, they won’t let me run because my GPA (grade-point average) is low; I wasn’t tested until the middle of my 10th-grade year,” she said. “All of my grades up to 10th grade made my GPA lower. Now I have (an accumulative) GPA of 2.49.”

She explained her disability to the representative.

“(She) said there would be no exceptions,” she said. “They said in 2005 they had a girl who was deaf who got queen; she had a disability.”

Emerald tried to explain the difference between a physical disability and a learning disability, she said.

“I think it’s discouraging,” she said. “They’re not giving everyone the opportunity. They don’t understand what my disability is and how hard it is to overcome. It’s like, if a deaf girl can do it, you should be able to do it, too.”

Denise Schultz also struggled to explain the disability to the representative.

“I asked the lady about it – would they make exceptions? She said, ‘absolutely not,’ and they will not change the regulations,” she said. “I e-mailed her back and said it is a kind of discrimination because that was physical and this is learning. Emerald, no matter what, still has to have the extra time to understand. So I said, ‘wow. I’m really sorry to hear that. I hope in the future you understand what a learning disability is.’”

That example of finding acceptance prompted Emerald to share her story.

“Just because you don’t learn the way everybody says you should doesn’t mean you can’t get help,” she said. “I encourage parents and students to look into (evaluations.) You’re not supposed to struggle in school.”

Emerald has found the silver lining through her struggles and hopes to reach out to fourth-graders by majoring in early-elementary education – a clear influence prompted by her fourth-grade teacher, Ellie McDaniels of Emerald Hills Elementary.

“She made us feel like it was OK to learn the way we did,” she said. “She understood when I needed extra time.”

Reach Judy Halone at jhalone@courierherald.com or 360-802-8210.

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