Dealing with dyslexia

Parents push for more screening, support for students with dyslexia

PHOTO: Provided by Lori Smith
Fourth-grader Ryann Smith meets Education Commissioner Candice McQueen at a statewide literacy event, where she also hand-delivered a letter about dyslexia (below) to Gov. Bill Haslam.
Lori Smith wonders what life would be like for her daughter if she’d been screened for dyslexia in kindergarten instead of in the third grade.

Now a fourth-grader at Moore Magnet STEM Elementary School in Clarksville, Ryann is bright and creative. She loves drawing and musical theater. But she’s also reading below grade level. Her mom believes that, if Ryann had been diagnosed sooner with dyslexia, a learning disability that affects how a person processes written words, she could have received the supports she needed right away.

“We would have a totally different experience,” Smith said. “She wouldn’t be behind right now.”

Smith and a coalition for parents across the state are pushing for a bill that would require early screening for dyslexia, which affects up to one in five children.

The bill is scheduled to considered in House and Senate education committees on Tuesday and Wednesday after passing unanimously earlier this month in a House subcommittee — unusual for a bill with a fiscal note of more than $1 million.

Students with dyslexia have difficulty recognizing words and sounds and spelling, but can learn how to read with a specific multisensory approach that combines touch, sound and sight.

But because there’s no screening process in Tennessee public schools, the disability often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Even when it is diagnosed, schools often don’t have the proper training or tools to address the disorder, resulting in kids getting inappropriate interventions that do more harm than good.

According to the Yale Dyslexia Center, the earlier dyslexia is identified, the better. Dyslexia can be identified before a student even enters school, preventing children from getting far behind, discouraged and disengaged. Dyslexia also has been linked with higher rates of high school dropouts and even imprisonment and suicide.

Such concerns inspired Smith to get in touch with Rep. Joe Pitts, her local representative.

“I told Rep. Pitts, ‘I can make sure my child can get the help she needs. But when you’re talking about one in five students are struggling with this — who is advocating for other kids, whose parents can’t read or can’t recognize that their child is struggling?’”

With the help of Professional Educators of Tennessee and other parents involved in Tennessee’s chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, Pitts drafted the proposal to help more Tennessee students with the disability get the help they need.

Despite the prevalence of dyslexia in schools, the Tennessee Department of Education didn’t recognize it as a learning disability until 2014, when the legislature passed the “Dyslexia is Real” bill, mandating that dyslexia be covered in teacher training each year.

The federal Office of Special Education Programs then specified to states that dyslexia can, and should, be accounted for in students’ Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, which dictate what kind of supports they receive in class and during testing.

But that only helps if your student has been identified with dyslexia in the first place.

Ryann's letter to Gov. Bill Haslam. Because of her dyslexia, many 'b and d' reversals, and that she doesn't hear sounds on multi-syllable words.
PHOTO: Provided by Lori Smith
Ryann’s letter to Gov. Bill Haslam includes many b and d reversals because of her dyslexia.

Lori Smith and her husband Shane struggled to have Ryann screened because, although she was below grade level in reading, she typically performed average on the state’s “Response to Intervention,” or RTI screeners, which are meant to single out struggling students in order to provide them with help. They knew Ryann couldn’t recognize that words like “hat” and “cat” rhymed and that she mixed up sounds, but teachers waved off concerns. The Smiths were repeatedly told not to compare Ryann to her older brother, a gifted reader. Finally, they had Ryann privately tested, and found what they had suspected all along: she has a learning disability.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, the Thorsen family was having an almost identical experience. Like Ryann, Clara Thorsen is a gifted student who loves books and art. But she was beginning to hate school because of her struggle to read. School officials told Clara’s parents that they couldn’t screen Clara for dyslexia until she had failed RTI screeners several weeks in a row.

Fortunately, both of Clara’s parents are attorneys familiar with federal law. And Clara’s mom, Anna, also has dyslexia. They provided a letter from the U.S. Department of Education prohibiting states from using RTI to delay screening for a disability.

"If you have a parent who doesn’t know they have a right to do any of this, you’re completely screwed."Anna Thorsen, parent

“We were in some ways uniquely prepared for the battle that was about to ensue,” said Anna Thorsen. “If you have a parent who doesn’t know they have a right to do any of this, you’re completely screwed.”

Even once a student is diagnosed, schools might not have the resources, such as audio books or multisensory curriculums, that can help kids learn to read. Julya Johnson, co-founder of Tennessee’s Decoding Dyslexia, remembers feeling at a loss when her son David was diagnosed with dyslexia, but his school didn’t have a program aimed toward learners like him, rendering his intervention time unproductive.

“I finally got him identified, he’s being pulled out of class, and it’s for something that can’t help him,” she recalls.

Johnson had to research and advocate for change at the district level before her son was finally placed in a dyslexia-specific program.  Parents of students with dyslexia say teachers need training about dyslexia, kids need better screeners, and schools need to provide a multisensory curriculum.

“It’s more than my child’s school,” Smith said. “It’s truly a statewide issue.”

Ryann and Clara have written to Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to ask for more support for students like them. Ryann also testified to a House subcommittee, urging them to pass Pitts’ bill, which requires the proper interventions for dyslexia and creates an advisory council, as well as mandates screening for kindergarten through second-graders.

“I did not know why reading was so hard,” Ryann told lawmakers. “I did not think I was smart. … I would come home crying and ask my mom, ‘Why is reading so hard? I love books!’”

Ryann told the panel that things are looking up for her now that she has a diagnosis, but she wants to help more kids.

“This bill is important because most kids don’t have the money to be tested,” she said.

around the world

VIDEO: Second-graders take their Memphis school on a global tour

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A second-grader teaches younger students about India, a country she studied this year at John P. Freeman Optional School.

Dressed in garments representing 30 countries, students at one Memphis school threw a world-class celebration to mark the last week of the school year for Shelby County Schools.

Second-graders at John P. Freeman Optional School created displays about countries they’ve been studying and invited their families and other students to take a tour.

Called Global Fest, the annual event was organized by teacher Melissa Collins, who has traveled to India and Brazil through several global teaching programs. Her teaching style aims to bring those experiences to life for her students.

“Global Fest is important to me because it gives the students a different perspective of other people around the world,” Collins said.

Watch what we saw and heard Thursday during this year’s Global Fest.

Global Fest at John P. Freeman Optional School, Memphis from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.