Learning to Read When a School System Falters

How a determined student, who was once branded ineducable, finds the help of dedicated New York City educators and mounts a path toward literacy at age 18.
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How a determined student, who was once branded ineducable, finds the help of dedicated New York City educators and mounts a path toward literacy at age 18.

On a hot, sunny September afternoon — the sticky kind so common in New York City that time of year — a tall, dark-haired young man with his shoulders hunched slightly forward padded into Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School’s back entrance and into a small courtyard. Moustafa Elhanafi sought the school’s principal. He needed her help. Not being a student there, he didn’t know what she looked like or where he would find her inside the massive, unfamiliar building. In the courtyard beneath the shade of a wide-leafed tree, looking for crafty students cutting class, stood Principal Geraldine Maione.

“I saw her, and I didn’t know if she was the principal, but she was wearing a suit, so I asked her if she was,” said Moustafa.

Maione welcomed him inside and listened to what he had to say. With his father beside him, Moustafa told Maione how, at 18 years old, he still didn’t know how to read or write. He had tried and failed at other schools, and he was willing to work as hard as he could to learn, but Moustafa said he needed help. After 15 minutes relating his frustrations, he began to cry. Maione, too, became emotional. She told him she knew just the person who could help. As if on cue, special education teacher Rosalie Dolan strode around the corner on her way home for the day, right into the tear-streaked faces of Moustafa and Maione.

"He cried, she cried, I cried," recalled Dolan, relating the details in the thick accent shared by so many of the South Brooklyn school’s teachers. "I don't know how to explain it; it was like a rainforest. I think we all had a spiritual experience that day."

The trio’s first meeting that day launched Moustafa on an academic journey that has brought him tantalizingly close to obtaining a high school diploma. Outside of school hours, and without pay, Dolan began the painstaking process of teaching Moustafa how to read, one letter at a time.

That was in 2008, at the end of Moustafa’s three-year run at the Roy Campanella Occupational Training Center — known colloquially as the OTC — a school for developmentally disabled children. The New York City public school system — the largest in the world — has many resources at its disposal, but as Moustafa’s case suggests, it’s not always successful at plugging every student into the right ones.

Moustafa had been enrolled in what is known as an inclusionary program — special education classes sponsored by the OTC, but held on the campus of John Dewey High School, the conventional school right next door. But Moustafa felt out of place in OTC classes. He couldn’t get the hang of reading and writing, but he was different from his classmates, most of whom suffered from Down syndrome, mental retardation, and other severe disabilities. The OTC is well known for helping students with such problems, but its approach wasn’t working for Moustafa.

Moustafa had asked his teacher, Marian Bruce, to help him learn to read, and said that she invited him to show up before class for tutoring. But at those sessions, something was missing. He recalls being asked to copy lessons for class onto the board, mimicry that didn’t help him correlate sounds to letters. Plus, he said, “I’m a slow writer. I had to go one letter at a time, and by the time I finished, the bell rang and class started. It didn’t help at all.”

Frustrated and depressed, Moustafa eventually stopped going to school. His father didn’t like what he saw. “I said, ‘Moustafa, you need to read and write to get a job,’” recalled Ahmed Elhanafi, a now-retired taxi driver who raised his two sons in Bensonhurst, not far from FDR. Ahmed pep-talked his son into asking for help from the principal of the high school in their neighborhood, starting the trek to Geraldine Maione’s shady tree.

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Moustafa Elhanafi was born in New York City to Egyptian immigrant parents, both literate in English and Arabic. At age 2 he moved with his mother to Egypt while his father stayed behind. His parents divorced a short time later. Moustafa stayed in Egypt for the next six years, speaking only Arabic, but never learned how to read or write the language. When he was 8, his mother moved back to New York, and Moustafa moved in with his father in Bensonhurst, where he’s been ever since. Like most other kids in New York City, he was enrolled at the neighborhood public school.

Moustafa Elhanafi gets tutored on the subjects that give him difficulty. (Ben Preston)

Moustafa Elhanafi gets tutored on the subjects that give him difficulty. (Ben Preston)

After a year at Nelson A. Rockefeller School, school authorities decided that Moustafa needed extra help, and in September 1999, he was transferred to Alfred De B.Mason, a larger school with a more robust special education program. Yearly evaluations by school counselors are normal for any student, but Moustafa’s recommended he also see an outside psychiatric specialist to see why his classroom performance wasn’t up to par. Ahmend Elhanafi said he did what they told him to do for his son’s education.

When Moustafa was 11 years old, he was diagnosed as mentally retarded. According to the New York City Department of Education’s rules, every special ed student’s “Individualized Education Plan” is updated on a yearly basis, and students are reevaluated every three years. By 2005, when he was 15, Moustafa’s educational situation hadn’t improved, and the Department of Education classified him ineducable. Too old to continue going to Alfred De B.Mason, Moustafa’s next stop was the OTC.

Moustafa says that a typical day at the OTC included menial tasks like stringing beads onto thread and sorting piles of sugar cubes. “They give you a bag of sugar cubes and you take two cubes out and put them in a Ziploc,” he said. “That’s it. After you’ve filled dozens of bags with dozens of cubes, they take you back to the school to sit there for hours and do nothing.”

Teachers and administrators who worked with Moustafa at the OTC and Dewey High School declined to comment on his time there. (OTC Principal Wendy Weiss said she did not feel comfortable speaking about Moustafa’s case, and other teachers and administrators at FDR cited concerns about violating the NYC Department of Education’s information policy.)

In the midst of this drudgery, Moustafa’s desire to learn to read and write kicked in when his mother started the search for a bride for him, the normal route to marriage in his traditional Islamic culture. The girl she had in mind was still in Egypt, but when Moustafa met her during a trip there to visit family, he remembers liking her instantly. The match was arranged when he was 16, steeling Moustafa’s resolve to attain literacy.

“When you get engaged, you don’t want to be like that anymore,” he said. “You want to show your wife that you can be a man and work hard.”

Despite his drive, he struggled in vain to get a grasp on reading. His father says Moustafa became depressed, and was crying a lot. To make matters worse, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “He was taking the Ritalin for one year and he wasn’t eating,” said Ahmed Elhanafi, who canceled his son’s prescription during the summer of 2008, a year after it had begun. “It didn’t make him smarter; it didn’t help. He was in the wrong school.”

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Rosalie Dolan knows what it’s like to be illiterate. Throughout her childhood and young adult years, neither she nor the New York City public school system knew that she was dyslexic and diplopic (double vision). Like Moustafa, she had been deemed mentally retarded and uneducable. She was married at 16 and had three children by age 20 but no high school diploma. It wasn’t until her kids started pestering her to read to them that she really felt the need to learn how.

“Nobody knew I couldn’t read and write — not even my husband,” she said. “My kids wanted me to read them the Little Golden Books, and I was like, ‘Uh oh.’”

Rosalie Dolan devoted her free time to helping Moustafa learn how to read. (Ben Preston)

Rosalie Dolan devoted her free time to helping Moustafa learn how to read. (Ben Preston)

She said that she let her brother in on the secret, and that he had promised to help her learn how to read. But he was murdered before they could get started. Just after he died, she remembers spying an open Scrabble set on the living room table. In a moment of frustration, she hurled it across the room.

“The chips went in a big arc and landed all over the floor,” she said. “When I bent down to start picking them up, I grabbed [one of the pieces] and felt the little indentation the letter makes in the wood. I’d never that noticed before.”

She realized that what she saw as a backward railroad sign was what everyone else recognizes as the letter “R.” That tiny, tactile moment started her down a long road that led her to a GED, college, graduate school and eventually, teaching children with learning disabilities how to read.

“Moustafa is just a 30-years-later version of what happened to me with the Board of Ed,” she said. “We could really bash the Board of Ed for destroying this student’s morale, but that’s not what we’re trying to prove. With the right amount of motivation and attention, you can do anything.”

When Moustafa came to her in the fall of 2008, she said they both had their work cut out for them. He didn’t yet recognize any of the letters, couldn’t sound many of them out, and had a particular problem with vowels. But he seemed excited to learn with his new tutor, and dove into reading instruction using the Wilson Reading System, a method of sound-symbol association entailing “tapping out” letters one by one — cards with pictures, letters, and phonetic spellings for A, apple, ah; B, bat, buh; and so on. Moustafa wasn’t enrolled in school during that time. Dolan spent a couple of hours with him after regular school hours every week — the two of them seated among two crooked rows of empty desks in her small second-floor classroom at FDR. The rest of the time Moustafa was at home, practicing and practicing tapping. C, cat, cuh; D, dog, duh …

“It helps you to understand the sounds of the letters,” said Moustafa. “Then, it comes automatically. I’m not tapping anymore. Now I’m just reading it – I go with the flow.”

It took six weeks of intensive study before Moustafa was able to read his first sentence: "The rat is mad." Before long, he could read an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence. Then came comprehension of what he was reading.

After a year and a half of tutoring, Dolan said Moustafa asked her if he could start taking academic classes at FDR and work toward getting his high school diploma. For someone to begin not just high school, but school in general, at 18 years old is unusual, but she was impressed by his hard work and dedication, and helped him take the next step. It was time to see Maione again.

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FDR High School's hallways are a microcosm of the world. Around every corner, a cacophony of different languages meets passersby as 3,500 students from all kinds of backgrounds move through the building. But it’s a happy world; a well-ordered one where students and teachers appear to get along. Geraldine Maione was the school's principal for six years, and until being transferred to William Grady High School in Brighton Beach this year, she fostered a “kids first” atmosphere.

"What she did was promote a culture — you had to go out of your way to help kids," said Stanley Fevrine, 31, a teaching assistant who works in the special education department with at-risk teens. Fevrine's familiarity with Maione's teaching ethic goes beyond his job at FDR. He was a student in Maione's social studies class when she was a teacher at Grady and still remembers the first time he met her. “In steps Ms. Maione — this short, gray-haired Italian lady — she had a presence about her. I don't want to overdo it, but you know when [Michael] Jordan steps on the court? It's like that.”

Maione has a reputation as a tough teacher and a strict administrator, but also as someone students could rely on when they needed help with just about anything. She remembers teachers calling her stupid when she was a student on Manhattan’s then-gritty Lower East Side. As a grad student at NYU, one of her professors uttered words that she has carried with her ever since: “You have the power to destroy the spirit of a child.”

When Dolan approached her in March 2010 about getting Moustafa enrolled in diploma-oriented academic classes, she said Maione was unflinchingly supportive of the idea, even though Moustafa had no formal education. Enrolling him at FDR meant that if he tried and failed, the school's rating would be pulled down, taking it just a little farther from the number of four-year graduations required by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. At a school like FDR — with a heavy concentration of non-native English speakers — every point counts. Maione was not deterred, and despite the objections of a couple of teachers toward his enrolling late in the term, Moustafa began classes the next month.

As when he learned to read, Moustafa at first had a tough time with classes. Dolan said the teachers who had initially objected to his enrollment came around when they saw how much effort he put into his schoolwork. Since he’s been at FDR, he hasn’t missed a single day of school.

“Quite frankly, I've never seen someone try so hard,” said Anastasia Novik, 28, Moustafa's algebra teacher. “He knows he's weak, so he gets to school early and stays late.”

At 6 feet, 4 inches, Moustafa towers over most teachers and students, and looks a bit like a ship navigating a sea of people in the school’s busy hallways. He most often wears a shy smile, and has a gentle manner; Maione calls him a gentle giant.

Moustafa doesn't have a lunch period, and is enrolled in classes eight periods a day. Twice a week, he meets Dolan at 6:30 a.m. for tutoring. Every day, he has a "resource period," where he gets extra help in subjects he's having trouble understanding. Novik said she often tutors him during the period she has open to plan and prepare for other classes. He has a job at the school, assisting teachers with administrative tasks.

"He's a lot smarter than [the school system] gave him credit for," said Joe DeRanieri, 57, a 19-year veteran of FDR's special education program who runs the resource room. "They had him in a very low-functioning program, and with the help of Rosalie Dolan and others, he's almost up to speed."

When Moustafa gets home from school, his dad fixes him a quick dinner — usually something Egyptian. Ahmed Elhanafi is a constant presence in his sons’ lives. One moment, he’s helping one of them with homework; the next, he’s cooking dinner or doing laundry. Moustafa’s brother Mohammed, 22, who also lives at home, is studying criminal justice at Kingsboro College, and hopes to become a cop. While his dad whirls around, Moustafa spends evenings in a chair in their brightly painted living room, studying and doing homework.

"The days are filled with math and science and history," said Moustafa. "I may not really be that smart, but I worked hard to get to know all this. I needed it in my life."

Moustafa has passed all of his Regents competency exams — quite an accomplishment for someone who hadn't taken academic courses before a couple of years ago — and holds a respectable grade point average. After traveling a long, circuitous educational path, Moustafa is scheduled to graduate in June at the age of 21.

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The New York City Department of Education is responsible for educating millions of students, and while it does provide special education resources such as the OTC, some, like Moustafa, can slip through the cracks. District 75 — of which the OTC is part — is the department’s special education section dedicated to severely disabled students, and most of those students graduate with diplomas that aren’t recognized by colleges, universities, or the military. Until a few years ago, Moustafa was on track to join their ranks.

Terry Manger, a school psychologist working at both New Utrecht and FDR High Schools, said that while she's only known Moustafa since March 2010, there are many factors that could have led to his being diagnosed as mentally retarded. English is his second language. He's shy. He's emotionally sensitive. All of those, she said, are things that can affect a student's performance.

"This is why we have a process where we can always reevaluate and readjust," she said, adding that three-year evaluations are the best way to keep on top of a student's changing conditions. "I think that what Moustafa got at FDR was a lot more individual attention. It's not a question of what someone did or didn't do — it's not even the extra mile. It's the one-on-one."

Dolan continues to tutor Moustafa before school two mornings per week, still without being paid for it. She has kept records on his progress since they began working together, and would eventually like to use the data to complete a Ph.D. dissertation she postponed in the mid-1990s when life got in the way. She hopes to see Moustafa graduate and go on to college.

Although he is no longer engaged (the girl’s father called off the engagement shortly after her mother died two years ago), Moustafa is determined to get his diploma and go to college. He thinks he'd like to be a pharmacist someday, but right now, simply going to school to learn more is his top goal. His guidance counselor, Helayne Wagner, 54, and several of his teachers said that as he has learned more and more in school, Moustafa has become more confident.

“It's a miracle,” said Moustafa’s father. “I live with my son day by day and I'll never forget the change. He was diagnosed wrong, he was in the wrong school, and he was really struggling. But now he's really opened his mind, thanks to God.”

Making up for years of lost time, Moustafa takes in opportunities to learn with the voracity of someone who has been starved. During the lunch period he sacrificed, he gets extra credit by taking a music class. He tackles the keys of a piano much as he did the letters of the alphabet — one note at a time. Moustafa plays deliberately, hitting the notes and chords of “Are You Sleeping” with accuracy that’s surprising for someone who had never even touched a piano until a few months earlier.

At his job assisting one of FDR’s business career education teachers, he often helps other students with their classwork, something he wouldn’t have imagined doing even a year ago.

“It’s exciting when you understand what the teacher said,” he explains. “You can be proud to share that lesson with a student who doesn’t.”

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