Budget cuts hit Butte’s learning disabled

Students are on their own in getting diagnosed

Butte College student Debbie Buccola is one of only two learning-disabled students this semester able to take advantage of the school’s dwindling support services.

Butte College student Debbie Buccola is one of only two learning-disabled students this semester able to take advantage of the school’s dwindling support services.

Photo By Vic Cantu

Debbie Buccola is a bright 50-year-old single grandmother who enrolled in Butte College this semester to better her life. She supports a 12-year-old son, a 7-year-old grandson and a 28-year-old daughter she’s putting through college.

Buccola, a licensed vocational nurse, said she suspected she had a learning disability since her days of struggling in high school before dropping out. Taking and eventually dropping an algebra course this semester at Butte set off the bells and red flags anew.

“As the class got more complex,” she said, “the material started to make less and less sense. After a while it was like my professor was speaking Chinese.”

In early October she quit the class after several of her tests were returned with zeros and one was completely blank. That’s when she sought out the college’s downsized Disabled Student Program Services (DSPS) for help.

She said she was shocked to learn that the program’s recession-era cuts—more than 40 percent—had included elimination of testing for learning disabilities needed to qualify for free services. She was able to scrape up the money for those tests, which led to a diagnosis of three learning disabilities. She is now receiving help.

Others have not been so fortunate. Buccola was one of only two students who could afford to pay for testing when they came to the center this semester. Ten others could not.

Students who cannot afford testing often flunk classes or drop out of college, said Karen Micalizio, dean of Financial Aid and Special Programs and Services. The program helps students with severe academic problems by offering a slew of assistance services such as extended test-taking time and computer learning aides. Many have gone through high school not knowing they had a condition before facing the rigorous demands of college. Instructors are trained to spot struggling students and refer them to DSPS.

Starting with the 2009-10 school year, California’s community colleges lost 55 percent of their funding for disabled student services, Micalizio said. This resulted in the loss of at least 10 Butte classes designed to help the disabled. Hardest hit was DSPS testing and assessment, which is now completely gone. For those able to pay for their own diagnoses, the remedial programs for DSPS are still in place. They include exam help as well as translating texts to computer or audio, interpreters and reading assistance.

As Butte College’s DSPS director, Jamie Dillard, puts it, the catch is that to qualify for these services, students must first receive an official learning-disability diagnosis.

Buccola was told she would need to see and pay for a private testing psychologist, which she was able to do at a reduced rate of $325. That’s still a whopping sum for a grandmother with no retirement plan supporting three children while living off financial aid and a savings account. Buccola said she is greatly relieved to have been diagnosed.

“The bulk of the help I’ll get is being formulated and will kick in next semester, but for now I’m allowed 50 percent more test-taking time and I take them in a secluded, less-distracting room,” she said. She also has special permission to record her class lectures.

“For most students that $325 diagnosis fee might as well be a million dollars,” Dillard said.

The trouble is compounded during this recession as Butte sees an influx of learning-disabled students who are often the first to be laid off and are now vying for a degree to compete with the nondisabled workforce.

Buccola said she remembers her high school days of getting F’s in math and feeling grossly inadequate. She was repeatedly told she was a daydreamer who stubbornly refused to pay attention.

“After a while you start running the tape in your head that says, ‘I am stupid,’ ” Buccola said.

Her ah-ha moment came this semester when her diagnosis revealed those learning disabilities. Buccola said she is better prepared for the challenge of school and plans to retake the algebra course in the spring.

Dillard said Buccola was extremely lucky to be able to afford help and points to studies showing learning-disabled students in community college who receive aid do as well or better than their counterparts.

Help for Butte’s DSPS may be on the way after an upcoming internal program review meeting Dec. 7. These meetings occur only once every six years, and this one will feature a panel of approximately six disabled students, including Buccola, giving feedback to local school and community representatives on DSPS and the college’s ability to help them. Dillard said she will use the discussion, as well as student and faculty survey results, to present a report to Butte College President Kim Perry who, along with the Board of Trustees, can increase funding to DSPS.

“Cutting services to the disabled is just wrong and unethical,” Buccola said.