Leveling the Playing Field for L.A.'s Young Learners
The art on Janeen Steel’s office wall is made of fabric scraps, bits and pieces painted and placed without pattern or rhythm. She created it while attending law school. It reflects, she says, a life of fragments, darkness and chaos, a life reaching for light.
In it, she sees herself as well as others with learning disabilities.
Steel, 39, is director of the Learning Rights Project at the Western Law Center for Disability Rights, located at Loyola Law School. She founded the program to help low-income families work with schools to obtain services for children with learning difficulties and disabilities.
“She comes into the process with an open mind,” says Wesley Parsons, a special education attorney for the Los Angeles Unified School District who has worked with Steel. “She focuses on resolving situations in a manner that’s both beneficial to the child and practical. I think she has a good grasp on how to address the need of students with learning disabilities in the best possible way and is willing to work with the district in meeting those needs.”
Steel’s goal: to make sure each child is properly assessed and receives the services and rights granted them by the law. The kind of support that keeps them in school and helps them find ways to succeed.
And she knows how difficult it can be to stay the course--long before she was a lawyer, she was a high school dropout with undiagnosed learning disabilities.
National figures suggest that about 35%, twice the percentage of those without learning disabilities, drop out of high school. That statistic is why Steel is working with students such as 18-year-old Jason Artola, a sophomore at Verdugo Hills High School.
Although Artola has been tested as being of higher than average intelligence, until last year, he knew only failure. Other students called him “stupid” or “retarded.” They said his family must be stupid too.
One day in the cafeteria of his former school, a group of about five students swarmed around him, calling him names. They grabbed his backpack and scattered its contents on the floor. They pushed him against a wall, then laughed as they walked away.
Artola turned and saw the stares. He quickly gathered his things off the floor and left school. He took the bus to Griffith Park, and he started to run. He ran until his chest heaved and his mind cleared.
By the time he got home, however, the feelings of pain and frustration had returned. He went to his bedroom, closed the door and lay still on the bed. What would it be like to die, he asked himself. Which knife should he use?
Then he thought about his family and knew that wasn’t the solution. Desperate to keep her son in school, Artola’s mother contacted Steel after hearing about her through a co-worker. Steel studied the youth’s background and met with school officials.
He began to see improvement last year, when he transferred to Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga. He was assigned tutors, and other students took notes for him, allowing him to focus on what the teacher was saying. He was placed in regular classes rather than special education classes and for the first time received passing marks.
And for the first time, he was academically eligible to participate in athletics. He went out for cross country, soccer and track.
“I felt school pride for the first time in my life,” Artola says. “The first time I wore a school uniform.... I teared up a little bit because it was what I wanted for so long. It was my dream to get into some sport.”
He seemed to flourish, but then last month, Artola received a report card with two failing marks. He was removed from the track team. He started missing classes. “It’s hard to keep going,” he now says. “I feel like giving up.”
Gayle Glazer, inclusion facilitator at the school, says he has been switched to classes that will provide him with more individual attention. Notes will be taken for all his classes, not just one. And he will be given more time to work on assignments.
“We’re doing everything we can to help him become successful,” Glazer says. “It’s frustrating because he’s so bright. Now, it’s a matter of how hard he’s willing to work.”
Steel knows about the frustrations and the hard work. She grew up dreaming of becoming a writer, but words, like all else, were a part of her chaos. In 1981, she dropped out of Hollywood High School and graduated from a continuing-education program. Her next six years were spent stumbling a few steps in many directions.
She lasted six weeks in welding school, one day in real estate school, an hour or so in a bartending program. She was a beautician for a while, but that didn’t work out either. Nothing did. At the same time, she was trying to fill the voids in her life with drink, drugs and a vague notion that things would work out, just as they did in movies, her place of escape. The only time she could forget that her life was going nowhere was during long afternoons at the Fox, Egyptian, Vogue, Pacific. She saw “Tommy” six times.
Eventually, she enrolled at Long Beach City College to study writing. For an English class, she was assigned an exercise in comparison and contrast, so she wrote about similarities and differences between health clubs and bars.
She says she worked hard but failed the assignment. Her professor could not understand her writing, but he had a daughter with dyslexia, and he recognized its symptoms in Steel’s work. Tests confirmed she suffered from disabilities affecting her abilities to read and write.
“All the sudden, it wasn’t me that was the problem,” she says. “It was my brain that was the problem. I can’t explain how much it relieved me.... Suddenly, I knew that I was going to be OK.”
Steel began working with tutors and note-takers, utilizing books on tape and developing new strategies to process information. She would dictate papers instead of writing directly. She made time to get organized before setting out on a task--even something as simple as driving across town.
Steel graduated from Long Beach City College, where she served as student body president, and in 1993, she received a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from San Francisco State. In 1999, 12 years after enrolling at Long Beach, she graduated from UCLA School of Law.
Throughout college, there were times, she says, when it seemed that all the information being fed into her brain might somehow abandon her as she struggled to live life in a new way, with new eyes and new hope.
What fueled her was the realization that ultimately she might be able to help others with learning disabilities.
“I got to law school, and a couple things happened,” she says. “I took an educational law class, and I started investigating students in high school and junior high school who had learning disabilities, whether or not they were getting accommodations, and I found out that they weren’t.”
She also discovered that students from low-income families were at a disadvantage in that they could not afford private attorneys to guide them through the process of assessment and compliance with state and federal laws. Nor could they afford private tutors. The Learning Rights Project started out as an independent nonprofit, but in 2000, it was taken in by the Western Law Center for Disability Rights, which now funds it. Working out of a small office, and with the assistance of six law clerks, Steel now assists about 35 clients.
Steel believes students in special education will benefit as LAUSD moves toward greater inclusion. “We need to educate students the same way we live in our communities,” she says. “We don’t want segregation in our communities, so we need to educate in an environment with people learning differently, looking differently. We need to teach students to accept each other in schools as well as communities.”
Statistics gathered by the National Center for Learning Disabilities indicate that there are 2.8 million students nationwide receiving special education services for learning disabilities. About 85% of them have difficulties in the area of reading. Of Los Angeles Unified School District’s 736,675 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, 52,429 have been identified as having learning disabilities.
Learning disabilities and behavioral issues easily become entangled. More than three-quarters of incarcerated youths have learning disabilities, Steel estimates, and it was through the juvenile court system that she met Sandra, 16, a junior at Wilson High School.
She was kicked out of school in eighth grade and got in trouble with the law. After she realized she had to change her life, the question became how, and that’s what Steel helped her understand.
“She told me that I was smart,” Sandra says. “It’s not that I’m not capable of doing things. It’s just that I need more time to do stuff. I’m as capable as regular students. At first, I didn’t believe her.”
Over time, however, Steel proved to be right. Sandra’s disability affected reading comprehension, written expression and math calculation. She was accommodated through tutors, books on tape, use of a computer for exams and assignments with software allowing her to check grammar and spelling. She also was given more time to complete exams.
This year, she is receiving straight A’s.
As it is becoming for students like Artola and Sandra, life for Steel has been a series of new beginnings. She was married two months ago--she and her fiance, Mark Challed, a road foreman for Metrolink, headed to a Las Vegas chapel and tied the knot at a ceremony officiated by an Elvis impersonator. It is her second marriage. She doesn’t like talking about the first.
Steel continues healing in many aspects of life. From time to time, she encounters ghosts of the past, familiar faces on the streets of Hollywood. “Literally, the people I hung around with, they’re homeless, on the streets now. Some are dead or in jail.”
When she sees them, she realizes how close she came. How far she came.
As she looks at the artwork hanging in her office and reflects on her life, she describes how the darkness becomes light in the upper left corner. “Chaos to light,” says Steel. “It’s always chaos to light.”