A History of IDL

This history was prompted in part by our recent blog post about IDL needing to come to a close if no member steps up to take over the leadership this year. We are so grateful to our founders and early volunteers. Please see the blog post here.

From Trish Budd, Australia

November, 2016

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Tackling Learning Differences in School

I have looked in online occasionally to see how IDL is getting along. I handed over the reigns to Katharina as President in 2007 when I took on a full time role with Howard County Arts Council. I left Ellicott City in November 2009 to sail to Australia, arriving here in October 2010. We lived in the U.S. for 13 wonderful years and made wonderful friendships during that time. My American friends taught me a lot about respect and acceptance. The recent news stories I see here about the mood with some people in the U.S. saddens me deeply. I have only good memories.

I’m proud of the organisation that began with my family. It came to life with Lynne D’Autrechy, Meg Mekelberg and Laurie Rush, gathered momentum with Donna Weaver and Debbie Bleakney and carried forward in 2007 with Katharina Boser, and has gone on to support many children, families and teachers, even beyond the HCPSS which was our initial focus. I must admit, IDL was an all-consuming part of my life for over 7 years and I describe my involvement as a “calling”, not something I was expecting or wanting to do. As more and more people joined us, it swept me along. All of us then and perhaps now would have chosen an easier path but there was a huge and seemingly growing need and we responded.

There are many miles and many experiences between then and now. I apologise if I fail to mention by name any of those who contributed so generously over the years. I turned 61 in September so maybe I can use an overloaded brain as an excuse?

I’d like to acknowledge the few who worked side by side to build the solid foundation that has stood the test of time for 15 years. For my part, I always knew I would one day return to Australia. Knowing the need was not going away any time soon, that was a personal goal. Meg, Laurie and I did it together by establishing the 501(c)(3), vision and mission, and recruiting and nurturing good people who would carry the effort on, following our “retirement”. Everyone who jumped in with us continued the building.

The history is close to my heart because it includes family and friends. It was always personal but I think everyone would agree we were very professional in our approach and performance. We changed the system! We brought GT and Special Ed together to plan programs for 2E students and our work and testimony resulted in the employment of a designated GTLD Facilitator in the HCPSS. Some people in the system said “that will never happen” but we did it with heart and determination. In 2004 IDL was awarded the Friends of Education Award for our work in collaboration with the HCPSS.

In 2000 we moved from Minnesota to Maryland. The IDL story really begins with concerns Robert and I had for our son’s education and well being. He was accepted into the Accelerated program at River Hill High and we could not be sure he would get the organisational and math support he needed. If it didn’t work he’d have to leave and go to Centennial. Being a new kid, the possibility of a third school in as many years was worrying.

Things may have changed since but then, support was offered only via the Special Ed department and GT teachers frequently refused to attend IEP meetings. Certainly it was “exceptional” to put a child needing support in a GT program. If accepted, it was on condition the parents signed a waiver stating that the “parent will take responsibility for the child’s learning” and mentioning nothing of any commitment by the teachers to support the child. I hope those waiver forms are a thing of the past!

Robert and I met with Mr John O’Rourke Superintendent of Schools, to seek advice. He understood well that the current system was not set up for 2E students and asked us to meet with both Mr Tom Payne (GT Director) and Carey Wright, Director of Special Ed. He promised they would meet with us and would also look at how both departments could work together to challenge and meet the needs of twice exceptional students and students with ADHD. That was huge – absolutely ground breaking stuff in Howard Co at that time. Some GT teachers were almost hostile about it but many others knew just where we were coming from and were supportive. Unfortunately Mr. O’Rourke did not last long in the job.

It was a real dilemma for us and him. He turned down the opportunity to learn in the accelerated program because the thought of failing and being pulled out and sent to another school was too much.

In 2000 I joined the Special Ed Community Advisory Committee SECAC at the invitation of Frances Wang, my neighbour. Frances was a tireless researcher and advocate helping parents through the special ed and IEP maze, and I credit her with giving me information and the courage to speak up. I became the GTLD rep on that committee however I was in an environment where the focus was heavily on Autism activism and I felt I had to work hard to shine a light on twice exceptional kids and kids diagnosed with ADHD. Remember in those days the money was going into special ed with a focus on the very expensive interventions for Developmental Disabilities. I felt too often that in SECAC, parents themselves were using a “hierarchy of disabilities”, even suggesting that twice exceptional, or kids with ADHD, did not need interventions as desperately as others. For example although OT was recommended and helpful for many of our kids they did not “qualify” for those services, leaving parents with a huge financial burden. We really were the odd ones who didn’t fit neatly in GT or Special Ed environments and the middle ground wasn’t working either. Sadly, we too often see extreme outcomes of failure to respect and nurture twice exceptional students.

Frances, the parent of a child born with a physical disability and highly gifted intellectually, was able to support her children emotionally, medically and academically and at the same time support anyone else in need without classifying their needs in terms of “severity”. She is a brilliant woman. She introduced me to the DSM-IV and the world of IEP advocacy as a parent.
Tom Payne was encouraging. He hosted a Susan Baum conference for his GT teachers and scheduled a public event for parents. It was early in 2001, I believe. He introduced me to the large crowd and invited parents to talk with me afterwards about this new “parent” group. I called it Gifted Different Learners Parent Support Group (GDL). Tom Payne gave us a public voice. Something he said in our quiet meeting in his small office back then, a fitting motto, is “a rising tide lifts all ships”. I repeat that phrase at times and think of his kindness.

Meeting with Carey Wright was less positive although I credit Carey and her team with sticking with Mr. O’Rourke’s plan and gradually giving me opportunities to share concerns with Special Ed. SECAC had breakfast meetings which Frances and I attended for a number of years and I was always jumping in with comments and waving the flag for 2E students and ADHD support. I must have annoyed the heck out of the special ed administration. They had the job of providing services on limited budgets, only for those with diagnosed disabilities. Many of our kids were not diagnosed with a specific “learning disability”. Many were labeled behavior problems (hardly surprising) and the most they could receive was a behavior modification plan. The system did not fit their needs at all.

The first person who came up to me at Susan’s GT presentation was Lynne D’Autrechy. Another brilliant woman, involved with research into brain injury-acquired dyslexia. She offered to set up the GT/LD/ADHD yahoo online support group. I think she got onto it the next day! and worked tirelessly for years behind the scenes. The online group was huge. Almost overnight 50 parents and teachers flocked to it and over time we attracted over 500 online members. A couple of us were kept very busy responding to the many questions and outpourings of need shared on the group. Maggie Beecher and Frances were often responding. I often met with parents in coffee shops, listening to their stories and offering information we had accumulated. Quite a few teachers were members. I think I also met Meg Mekelberg at Susan presentation, and Laurie Rush, – not sure when we met but you filled a need we didn’t know we had as founders 🙂 Meg was invited by Tom Payne to join the Gifted Education Advisory Committee and was our voice in that department. We attended conferences together to learn, influence, connect and gather information to help everyone who looked to us for support.

Laurie brought her project management skills and forced Meg and I to plan, plan, plan, articulate our vision, mission, goals, understand and describe who we were as a group, etc. when we tried to run off and do, do, do, so full of ideas about changing the HCPSS. Thanks Laurie for your patience, care and strength. How many meetings did we have over our dining tables as we prepared to become a 501(c) (3) Laurie helped us establish a very strong foundation that has stood the test of time. Meg is an inspiration and it is she who took care of the managerial tasks involved in keeping the books for years, until Debbie Bleakney joined us as Treasurer. I think Debbie created the website with the earlier book logo. I think Meg, Laurie and I were in the right place at the right time and we worked well together.

The term “learning differences” wasn’t something that was talked about so commonly then. Mel Levine’s work inspired us with his publications, “A Mind at a Time” and “All Kinds of Minds”. Labels did not serve our children well in school or elsewhere and we decided to incorporate as Individual Differences in Learning – IDL (Meg and I liked that it sounded like IDEAL – we had hopes of the IDEAL learning environment for all kids) but kept the website with the Gifted Different Learners name.

Jonathan Mooney was a great supporter from the beginning. Robert and I took our son to hear him speak at the Friends School in Baltimore and were mesmerized by his presentation, as was our son. A young man was walking the stage, telling his life story in a way we could relate to. His memories of early school life tore my heart apart but also inspired me. Meg was determined to bring Jonathan Mooney to speak at Mt Hebron school. We did that and people were complaining we didn’t find a big enough venue to hold the crowd of 300 that spilled out of the cafeteria! I don’t think this event is recorded on the website and it must have been around 2002? That was our first big event and we were surprised by the numbers. It spurred us on.

April 2004, collaborating with the Special Ed department, we brought Jonathan back to Howard County for a full day, to present at River Hill auditorium to hundreds of teachers, held a luncheon meeting with key people in IDL, Spec Ed and GT, and then he presented to a packed auditorium in the evening. He reached over 900 people that day! (picture attached, Jonathan with me, Meg and Laurie). Rich Weinfeld was helpful with ideas about how they did things in Montgomery Co and we also brought him to present in Howard Co.

Donna Weaver joined us in the early days and as Meg and Laurie’s family and work commitments demanded more of them, Donna filled gaps more and more, along with Debbie and – please forgive me if I have failed to mention anyone else. It’s no exaggeration to say Donna worked full time on IDL for at least 4 years. Donna and I seemed to be constantly talking about what we’d do next and she was a great event organiser. She and I were invited to be Howard Co representatives to the MD State Advisory on ADHD. We became close friends.

All the monthly meetings with guest presenters and the larger annual presentations did not make us a lot of money. We all volunteered our time and energy, for the greater good. It was always a goal to get IDL into a sustainable financial position, to be able to fund some very needed admin or research positions. I regret that was not possible in my time although we did host a great silent auction with the help of Craig and Coyne among others, and we were successful with a grant from Horizon Foundation. Debbie Bleakney was with us then and her kitchen table was also well utilised for planning meetings!

Mike Fennessey, was our secretary for many years and kept our records and papers in order for tax purposes and by-laws.. He was a very dedicated Dad who also inspired me. It was great to have him onboard as Secretary, and I loved hearing about his fishing trips to Alaska.
Laurie has added the history of the Parent Advisory work that she did (see description below). It was a fantastic effort. I’ve no doubt that work also helped to make change in the system.

Meg, Laurie and I, (and Maggie Beecher) along with Special Ed and GT Facilitators, presented professional development materials we developed as a collaborative effort, to a couple of hundred educators over a number of days. I think the website might have that info? When we presented our stories of our own children and how families are affected when the school system cannot or will not recognise or adapt to individual differences, quite a few teachers had tears in their eyes. A past and a present HCPSS student also presented. We felt it was important that the voice of the student was heard. Many educators spoke to us afterwards to thank us for shining the light on 2E students. The term twice exceptional was not common, students were labeled GT/LD or Dyslexic or ADHD etc. We understood that it’s not the teachers who make the rules about how the system works and we saw their frustrations. Our big message was about the creativity that lies in individual differences and unlocking learning is possible through unlocking creativity and depends on mutual respect. We emphasized the importance of making a connection with the student. This work was the basis for the Walking the Path with the Twice Exceptional Learner professional development materials.
We submitted a couple of grant applications and we were successful in getting a grant from the Horizon Foundation that allowed IDL to employ Dr. Katharina Boser to produce Walking the Path with the Twice Exceptional Learner. It was a vote of confidence from the Horizon Foundation, a recognition of the need within the HCPSS, and significant in the fact that those grants were very hard to get. The grant, as appreciated as it was, did not come close to monetary compensation for the effort involved. Katharina worked tirelessly on the project and really made it her own, bringing her considerable professional skills and vast knowledge, sorting through the boxes of records, assorted anecdotal notes, and research I had accumulated over 6 or 7 years and bringing all that – plus the people you see on the videos, together. The HCPSS provided the recording studio and a couple of students assisted during summer vacation. She certainly put heart and soul into it (we involved our own families in the presentations) and I think I speak for all of us in saying we derived great satisfaction in seeing the final product. Thanks to Katharina, IDL has the materials to show for all our hard work, but more than that, I sincerely hope that they have been useful to students, educators and parents over the years. I know more has been done in the intervening years and acknowledge the ongoing efforts of all. There are so many more to mention.

IDL Walking the Path Video Playlist: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLXU9mNdktyD9pqkL4C57cfJsXh4Pnw3W2

I can still see my work reflected in the words on the website. Congratulations to you Katharina and those who’ve carried IDL to this day, on reaching the 15 year milestone. That is impressive. I’m sorry to hear that IDL is struggling with volunteer recruitment. I only hope that today, many more children than before IDL existed are in learning environments closer to what’s IDEAL for them.
We all became very close as we worked for children like ours. It’s lovely to see through your posts on social media how your children are doing. Owen and Amanda married in August and like Jonathan Mooney, Owen married someone who is creative and willing to take care of the organizational aspects of life. He still has a hard time with math and keeping track of his “stuff”. He is studying archaeology at the University of Queensland, loving it and doing exceptionally well. He will be 30 years old in January.

While, yes, it is a sad turning point in the life of IDL and our lives, we can take away a lot of good memories and knowledge we did good!
I didn’t mention all the good people in the school system. Patty Daly was especially committed but there were a host of others. As parents under a lot of stress with what was happening with our own children, I know I for one, got a little “prickly” at times yet Patty was always pleasant and supportive. Each of us would have had our champions who were lifesavers for us and our children during hard times. Please if you see any of those we worked with, will you pass on my regards.

I’ve written a long history. I appreciate the opportunity to tell it.

All the best to you and yours, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Trish

A Description of the Parent Advisory Council

From Laurie Rush,

There was one more event that we did. It came about after I was selected as the Howard County Rep for MD State Parent Advisory Council Program. The parents who were selected from each county were required to attend several week-end long retreats. The program was spearheaded by former Howard County Superintendent, Dr. Michael Hickey, Dr. Brenda Conley, and several others.(I don’t recall their names off the top of my head.) Mike and Brenda are the founders, and now directors of the Instructional Leadership and Professional Development program at Towson University. The program also had a connection with PIRC (Parent Information Resource Center).
After finishing the Parent Advisory coursework, each parent was required to do a school-based project. My project was to bring Dr. Linda Silverman to Howard County schools. Linda is the founder of the Gifted Development Center in Colorado, as well as author of Upside Down Brilliance-The Visual-Spatial Learner. I’m pretty sure that she did a session with all of the teachers at Waterloo Elementary, where my daughter attended, and I think we also did a larger session for GT and Special Ed teachers.  I also co-presented (with Dr. Mike Hickey) at one of the learning session during a state wide teacher training program that was held at the Convention Center in Baltimore. I spoke about our IDL, and the trials and tribulation of 2E students.

Note: If you contributed to IDL and would like to be acknowledged in this history and reflection, please email us at info@gifteddifferentlearners.org so we can correct our oversight, which is by no means intentional.