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Life with Maggie, Before College Algebra

May 12, 2021

A determined mother shares her frustrations as she fights for her daughter’s right to earn her college degree.

Life with Maggie, Before College Algebra

Life with Maggie, before college algebra, was one of remarkable focus and perseverance, because she is on the autism spectrum. Maggie is a mixed media artist from Gulfport, Mississippi, who uses the power of creativity to bring happiness and joy to herself as well as others. She was first diagnosed at age three with autism, and later with asperger’s, dyscalculia, PTSD, and depression. In her world exists an array of dazzling, bold, and radiant colors that give her a positive outlook on life. Thus, she is not defined by who she is as a person with disabilities, but through the expression of her art. Creating art means days filled with optimism and contentment for Maggie. While loud noises disturb her and being around people is awkward and fearful, it does not prevent her from doing the things that people without disabilities do. Without a doubt, her first and undying love is for creating art and she gives it her full attention.

As her mother, Maggie and I are inseparable because we have been through all her ups and downs. We share everything: laughter, secrets, tears, hope, hugs, trust, and most especially love. Her father is our strength and protector. She tells me that I am her best friend, but I tell you that she is “my rainbow” in this world. Although life can sometimes be unkind, inhumane, and compassionless, one thing is clear: Maggie is my rock, and I am hers. As a family, we face the world together, hand in hand, just like we are fighting her community college for Maggie’s right not to take college algebra.

Earning and achieving a degree is part of the American Dream that many students strive to achieve. Ultimately, this was Maggie’s dream, and she achieved it with a 3.60 GPA. She accumulated 93 semester hours for a 60-hour Fine Arts Degree. Her goal to achieve the impossible had just become a reality…until her degree was denied.

In schools, Maggie was often ostracized, unfriended, and bullied just for being herself. Every day was a struggle, but it was through art that Maggie found a source of comfort. It was like turning a magnificent bright light on in a very dark room, because she sees, thinks, and feels emotions through her art. This was life with Maggie before college algebra. The college made a deliberate and conscious decision to take from Maggie that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to graduate with her friends, walk in a cap and gown, and make memories that last a lifetime, all because she can never pass college algebra.

When Maggie was in sixth grade, she was doing math on the fourth-grade level, and when she was in eleventh grade, she was doing algebra on the eighth-grade level. The college has refused to acknowledge Maggie’s history of struggling in Algebra; she failed the Mississippi State Algebra SATP tests four times, and her MCT2 Algebra scores since second grade are below basic. Subsequently, she scored a 16 on the ACT.

Maggie did the work, earned the degree, and with four piercing words – “you are not graduating” – the administration turned her world upside down. They have committed a harmful act that has had detrimental psychological consequences on Maggie, and they did it through discrimination and lies.

Without hesitation, I have done what any other parent would do: advocate for my child against a community college whose bureaucratic discrimination is motivated only by dictating the compliance of the students for a one-size-fits-all approach to education. They do not recognize students with disabilities in college algebra at all. Incomprehensibly, they do not even reduce the number of algebra problems on the exams. The outcome for many students is that they are forced to drop out.

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Community colleges and higher-learning institutions are only concerned about their high enrollment, accreditation, and how much money they receive from the federal government. I would like to ask the administration at the college: “Who decided that algebraic expression, functions, and theory of equations are essential, and if so, to who or what?” I can assure you that it is not essential to Maggie because she is…an artist.

The disability law states, “it is within the constituent’s rights to petition (name of college) to waive College Algebra and replace it with a comparable course.” Without my knowledge or consent, the OCR entered a “Resolution Agreement” with the college and offered Maggie four options:

  1. Quantitative Reasoning
  2. Physical Science, Visual Basic Programming, and Economics (must take all three)
  3. Physical Science, Visual Basic Programming, and Statistics (must take all three)
  4. College Algebra

Even when Maggie took the Physical Science and the Economics courses in Option 2, the administration refused to waive the Visual Basic Programming Course. According to the course’s syllabus, Maggie does not “qualify” to take Quantitative Reasoning, Statistics, or the Visual Basic Programming course. The prerequisites require Intermediate Algebra and College Algebra. They offered her nothing.   

With extreme prejudice, Maggie’s college has retaliated against her because I advocate for her rights and because I filed a complaint with the OCR. It is the Resolution Agreement itself that proves they are abusing their power. The one thing that institutions of higher learning have forgotten to take into consideration is that inflicting monumental pain on our children results in consequences.

Our education system is failing students with special needs because the administrations at colleges are self-serving and think that they are above reproach as well as above the law. They do not consider how being forced to take College Algebra affects these special needs students’ lives, resulting in feelings of frustration, depression, and failure. According to Maggie’s therapist, “what they have done to her amounts to torture.” Where is the outrage?  

While I am infuriated about the injustice done to Maggie, I do what I do out of a place of love. It is time to hold these community colleges responsible for their actions. We need legislators to change the laws that will protect students with disabilities from the institutions’ abuse of power. Ultimately, they are responsible for destroying students’ lives. There is no justification for acts of injustice in education. In the end, Maggie will have justice and her Fine Arts degree, because I keep my promises. Never give up, never surrender.

This article was featured in Issue 118 – Reframing Education in the New Normal

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