These NYC parents struggled to find schools that would address dyslexia. Now they want to start their own.

This is part of an ongoing collaborative series between Chalkbeat and THE CITY investigating learning differences, special education and other education challenges in city schools.

When Emily Hellstrom’s son didn’t take to reading, she figured he would outgrow it.

But as the years ticked by and her son continued to struggle, she and her husband grew increasingly alarmed.

“We went down the classic path that I guarantee most parents do, which is the ‘wait to fail’ approach,” she said, “which is basically the [education department’s] approach.” 

It turned out her son had dyslexia. After her son grew increasingly disillusioned with school and developed behavior issues, Hellstrom reluctantly fought for him to attend a private school with tuition paid by the city.

Now Hellstrom and three other mothers who have faced similar challenges are vying to open a public elementary school of their own in Manhattan focused on students who struggle with reading. The group submitted an application in November through a city competition to open or overhaul 40 schools and is among 90 teams invited to come up with more detailed plans.

If given the green light, the school would be only the second in the state to recruit specifically students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities, a group that traditional public schools often struggle to serve.

The proposal represents the latest grassroots push to do more for students with reading challenges. A group of parents helped lead a successful campaign to open a charter school this school year on Staten Island geared toward students with dyslexia. (Hellstrom and other parents visited that school, Bridge Preparatory Charter, to learn more about its approach and solicit advice for opening a district school of their own.)

[Related: A reading ‘crisis’: Why some New York City parents created a school for dyslexic students]

Similar to Bridge Prep, the proposed school would have smaller classes and train or hire teachers familiar with approaches to reading instruction such as Orton-Gillingham or Wilson, which emphasize phonics. Those specific approaches, focused on the relationship between sounds and letters, are crucial for struggling readers, some experts say, but they are not deployed consistently across traditional public schools.

“It’s now time for the DOE to have a public school” geared toward dyslexia, said Jeannine Kiely, a member of Manhattan’s Community Board 2 and who was involved in submitting the proposal.

The application already has key backers, including the superintendents of Manhattan Districts 2, 5, and 6. Donalda Chumney, the superintendent of District 2, said she met with more than a dozen parents who have wrestled with decisions about whether to send their children to private schools, including the parents involved in the current proposal. 

“They felt powerless. And they felt, to a large degree, excluded,” said Chumney, whose district includes much of Lower Manhattan, Midtown, and the Upper East Side.

Given that many parents don’t have the resources to pursue private options, “this seems like an equity issue of the highest magnitude,” she added, noting that the school could be an important proof point to show the district can serve struggling readers within existing funding strictures and the teachers contract.

Advocates and experts have lamented that traditional district schools in New York City have no systematic approach to teaching over 76,000 students with learning disabilities how to read, even though there are strategies that have been shown to work.

Just 16.1% of students with disabilities were proficient in reading on state tests in 2019, compared with 56.2% of general education students. (The city does not universally screen students for warning signs of dyslexia and did not say how many students have “dyslexia” written on their individual learning plans. Some academics estimate that between 10% to 20% of students are dyslexic; others put the number much lower.)

Many parents, especially those with access to lawyers and money, can seek out private schools and sue the city for tuition reimbursements, arguing there are no public schools that provide intensive reading support, small class sizes, and practices that are backed by the latest science. A growing number of students with special needs have successfully secured city-funded private school tuition, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The parents behind the application plan to emulate the approaches that they’ve seen work with their own children at local private special education schools, such as The Windward School and the Stephen Gaynor School, both of which have agreed to help the school get off the ground. 

Education department officials said they have trained 960 educators in “Orton-Gillingham based reading programs and methodology” in the last four years — an approach favored by schools, including Windward.

Yet many schools favor “balanced literacy” methods that are successful with many students but are less focused on phonics and can make it much more difficult to reach struggling readers. Department officials don’t mandate any specific approach to reading instruction.

The parents working to open a new school still have big questions to work out: Will the school be open to students who don’t face reading challenges? Without universal dyslexia screening, how can the school be sure it’s attracting the students who need extra help? And how can the school work within the strictures of the union contract to offer smaller class sizes or pursue other structural changes?

Hellstrom also said her working group wants to ensure that the school is diverse in terms of race and income and not just representative of parents who have time and resources, or are able to secure pricey private evaluations that are more likely to explicitly diagnose students with dyslexia. 

[Related: A two-tiered system: Families who can’t afford private evaluations struggle to secure special ed services]

According to their proposal in the works, the school would draw from neighborhoods across Manhattan and would set aside 60% of the seats for students from low-income families; another 10% of seats would be set aside for English learners, Hellstrom said.

But their application’s prospects remain unclear. Forty winners will receive up to $500,000 in one-time startup funding. The $31 million competition is funded by XQ, the Robin Hood Foundation and the education department itself; department officials said they have not yet finalized the selection criteria. (XQ is funded by Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, which also funds Chalkbeat through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.)

Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, said there could be real benefits to the district running a school that explicitly services students with reading challenges  — including making phonics-based reading instruction more widely available. 

“There’s a need for additional evidence-based literacy instruction and I’m thrilled that people are thinking about ways to deliver it,” she said.