Photo by Issa Sharp

In one kind of school success story, the student makes it to Harvard. Another sort is when a child learns to use her one good hand to tie her shoe or to slice a peach.

Devone Adams was that second kind of triumph, though she didn’t stop at tying her shoe.

Adams overcame cerebral palsy and a serious learning disability to earn a job helping other severely challenged students at Salvin School, the same South Los Angeles school she once attended.

But Adams, 35, could lose her job helping children as a result of a federal law designed to help children. The No Child Left Behind Act requires “qualified” teachers and classroom aides, and it rates Adams, who has 13 years of classroom experience, as unqualified.

The reason is that Adams has limited reading skills — a result of the brain injury she suffered at birth. The same impairment made her right hand gnarled and useless and gave her a limp and a right foot that juts to the right. An adult, when first meeting her, sees shyness and some uncertainty, an apparently timid soul, fragile as an alpine flower. But Adams assumes self-assurance with her class of autistic kindergartners at Salvin, a school with 308 students, most of whom are moderately to severely disabled. Her work as a “special education trainee” includes diapering children, getting them on and off the bus and salving their troubled souls with steady, loving attention. In partnership with the teacher, she also helps them learn to communicate, to sing, to take turns. If all goes well, they’ll also learn how to recognize numbers, shapes and colors.

“She’s really gifted,” says Mohamed Mbaye, the classroom teacher with whom Adams works. Because these children don’t communicate in words, Mbaye relies on Adams to understand unspoken needs and feelings. “In terms of instruction, she knows how to adapt the materials — to use toys and stuffed animals — to make things more concrete. She can right away tell what their strengths and weaknesses are and so help them learn. She gives me a lot of ideas as well as using my ideas.”

The purely practical help is welcome, too.

“Who needs changing?” Mbaye asks Adams, soon after the children arrive on a recent Monday.

“All of them,” she answers, and they trek to the bathrooms.

At times, it’s hard to imagine teaching these children anything. One girl seems to move erratically in all directions at once. Yet she lets Adams grab her hand and lead her to a play area. Another boy is all grins as he makes clicks or throaty noises, but suddenly he’ll pinch himself or another child or start to bite at another person. Sometimes he claps his hands; sometimes he slaps his face, smiling all the while. Adams’ touch calms him a notch almost instantly.

“There are no dull moments,” says Adams, as she helps children take off shoes, socks and jackets to try out a bounce house they’ve inflated as a phys-ed activity. One large child is suddenly lethargic and unhelpful; others won’t be still: “You’re always on the go, but it’s all right. The day goes fast.”

Even as she helps, she has no intention of encouraging dependency: “If you be nice and sweet and always do it for them, the children will never learn to do it on their own.” She asks a girl to take off both boots before entering the bounce house. Adams is willing to wait, repeat the instructions two times, and wait again until the girl does it herself.


There’s something spiritual about Adams’ attachment to her work. Her own education was frequently a disheartening trial. It wasn’t easy finishing high school at Fairfax High in 1987 — being a teenager and also being so different. “My last year was not my good year,” she recalls. “I came home crying lots of times, but I did get through it. I accomplished it.”

She considered jobs that the disabled do, such as packaging spoons and straws. “That’s what my Mom and Dad wanted me to do,” says Adams. “I saw it and said, ‘That’s not for me.’”

She started volunteering at Salvin, where you have to accumulate scores of volunteer hours before applying for paid work: “I figured this was a cool job for me. I was still helping kids, even with my disability. This is a job for me to do.” The school district administered her qualifying test orally and Adams passed. She earns $17.37 an hour with benefits.

And she still pursues milestones. Because she didn’t want her mom always to do things for her, she set up her own tidy apartment in South Los Angeles about two years ago with the help of godmother Karen Campbell, who also works as a classroom aide at Salvin. Adams treasures her hard-won quiet and privacy. “I may not sweep and mop the right way,” she says, “but I get it done.” She just picked out a purple couch to accompany her collection of stuffed bears and a giraffe.

Adams is not the only veteran classroom aide struggling to clear the higher bar of No Child Left Behind, which President George W. Bush signed in 2002. “Hundreds of people will be affected,” said Tom Newbery, chief negotiator for Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union. He represents 33,000 non-teaching employees, including more than 11,000 special-education classroom aides. “It could be an absolute debacle. These people don’t necessarily assist in instruction, but they’re great at what they do. It takes very special people to work with these students.”

Federal officials, though not familiar with Adams’ case, have been inundated with complaints about inflexibility in No Child Left Behind. They’re sympathetic, but note that the law’s underpinning is to hold all schools accountable without exceptions. Past efforts at school improvement have failed, they’ve said, precisely because school districts make excuses or cite reasons — perhaps even good reasons — for failing to improve both student achievement and the conditions at schools that lead to better learning. Local administrators, in turn, respond that flexibility does not necessarily equate to watering down.

Classroom aides in Los Angeles have until 2006 to find their high school diplomas, get college units and take new and more difficult qualifying tests. And though they have several alternatives for passing muster, even the most basic testing option includes reading comprehension. A district official said both the state and feds have so far indicated they will not waive that provision, although a state education staffer held out some hope, saying a lot would depend on a position’s job description. “The federal requirements just don’t get that specific,” says Penni Hansen, a state specialist who helps school districts comply with federal requirements. “I would think it would be a local decision.”

An L.A. schools official says that simply defying the feds could jeopardize federal funding for L.A. schools. But Adams’ case raises conflicting legal issues, says personnel director Anita Ford. There also are federal rules that require accommodations for the disabled, she notes, and anti-discrimination laws that forbid employment tests that don’t correspond to the actual work. “We’ve told people we’ll do everything we can to help them,” she says.

Adams’ case is being championed by Salvin colleague Karen Campbell, who taught Adams as a child. Campbell says she’s had trouble getting the attention of district and union officials, but by the time a reporter started asking questions, the message had gotten through. “The intent is not to put people out on the street,” says Barbara Lockert, director of specially funded programs for L.A. Unified. “Especially if someone has worked with us for 13 years, we have a responsibility to help as much as possible.”

The goal of higher standards is “good for kids,” said the union’s Newbery. “It’s also good for kids to have people like Devone around, and it’s good for Devone, too.”

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