By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Sebenik often goes beyond the classroom to help her students. One of them was Loi Nguyen, who had been in the country for only a few years when he attended her sixth-grade class.
"He was strong, sweet and very caring," Sebenik says.
But she quickly recognized something wasn't right with Loi.
"His mother didn't understand what was going on with him," Sebenik says. "She'd say, 'I tell Loi to do this or do that, and he doesn't do it, or doesn't do it right.' He was a learning-disabled boy."
Loi's first teacher at Mountain View was Donna Hicks, who chronicled the challenges that the boy presented in a textbook by Sarah Huyvaert titled Reports From the Classroom--Cases for Reflection. Hicks contributed a chapter to the book, published in 1994.
"I was asked to write about my most difficult student, and Loi was my clear choice," says Hicks, who now teaches at Lookout Mountain Elementary.
In the chapter, Hicks writes that she had four Vietnamese students in her fifth-grade class, including 10-year-old Loi (whom she dubbed "Vinh" in the book for privacy reasons):
"Vinh was different because he was not even literate in his own language and had practically no education. . . . When he came to my class, Vinh didn't even know how to hold a pencil, open a book, or speak or understand a word of English. It was apparent that he had never before sat at a desk.
"My students are used to new students from other countries and they are always happy to 'Americanize' these students, but they soon saw that Vinh was different. His unpredictable scratching made them uncomfortable. He had no idea of what was appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the classroom--or any public setting."
Hicks said it was too early to tell if Loi was learning disabled, and that she and volunteers provided him extra help during those first difficult months. By the end of fifth grade, she wrote, "He became more culturally aware and was able to get along with other students."
Hicks says she last saw Loi Nguyen a few years ago.
"It took a long time for Loi to be properly diagnosed as learning disabled," she says, "and it only happened because his teachers that came after me such as Mrs. Sebenik were relentless."
Loi's elementary school teachers learned his history from his mother. Miet Tran related a near-drowning incident when Loi was a young boy, and described how Loi was pulled unconscious from a river. American doctors later determined that the near-drowning likely caused permanent brain damage.
"He could appear as if he was doing better than he was because he had the love and support of his family and many of his teachers," Sebenik says. "But the other kids knew. I would sit them down and say, 'Loi was hurt when he was real young, but you can't tell on the outside. Now, we have to find a way to help him learn.'"
Sebenik expressed her fears about Loi in writing as early as May 1995--at the end of his sixth-grade year.
"Loi puts forth great effort to follow through," she wrote to her supervisors, "but has great problems completing assignments. . . . If we don't get Loi the diagnostic help he needs now, he could easily fall thru the cracks next fall [at Royal Palm Middle School]."
Sebenik explains, "Loi had already developed incredible strategies for himself to accommodate. His intuition about what his teachers wanted from him was unreal at times. He usually answered when you speak to him, and always with respect. He never made waves."
Loi was fortunate that Joan Bergdolt was one of his seventh-grade teachers at Royal Palm.
"He seemed like such a happy kid, though he always kept to himself," says Bergdolt, an ESL teacher at Royal Palm since 1984. "I can still see him, riding three on a bicycle with his little brother, Lan, and a friend, somehow keeping their balance."
Bergdolt and other teachers wanted Loi classified as "learning disabled," so he could be placed in special classes.
In January 1996, Royal Palm psychologist Oscar Meehling wrote of Loi: "In his three years in our public-school system, he has made essentially no progress, which is unusual for immigrating Oriental students. His teachers indicate that he is well-motivated, but is quite frustrated in his progress."
Dr. Dale Schultz tested Loi as he neared the end of seventh grade. The doctor referred in his report to the near-drowning incident as an underlying cause of his classroom woes.
Schultz concluded in July 1996 that Loi's language barrier wasn't the prime cause of his learning woes: "He is in the 7th grade of public school, but it is clear that he is learning impaired. . . ."
Before starting eighth grade, Royal PaLm certified Loi as "severe learning disabled, speech and language delayed."
The classification entitled Loi to an Individual Education Plan (IEP), tailored to his special needs. Loi's IEP was crafted by two special-ed teachers, a school psychologist and a speech therapist. Miet Tran attended the late-1996 meetings, aided by a Vietnamese interpreter.
Loi's eighth-grade records show he was performing at a fourth-grade level in math and at a third-grade level in reading and writing. His final report card from Royal Palm in April 1997 indicated he was working "below grade level" in the classes proscribed by his IEP. But his effort in those classes was deemed "satisfactory" or "outstanding."