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.

How I Teach

In divisive political times, an East Harlem government teacher strives for nuance

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Skylyn Torres
Steven Serling, wearing a New York University shirt, poses with seniors wearing gear to represent the colleges they've committed to attending.

Some teachers might prefer to avoid politics in the classroom. Not Steven Serling.

As a government teacher at Park East High School in East Harlem, it seemed impossible to ignore the polarized debates that bombard his students on social media and the nightly news. So, along with a fellow teacher, Serling came up with a series of lessons to help students search for nuance in a world of bombastic soundbites and firey tweets.

“The media and politicians, they’ve been very partisan, and we want to lump things into ‘this-or-that, black-or-white,’” Serling said. “We wanted our students to understand we are human beings who live on a spectrum.”

In class discussions, students explored how they felt about issues such as the death penalty or abortion, and researched the stances of candidates and political parties. When an online quiz revealed many of his students were politically aligned with the presidential candidate Jill Stein, some were surprised to learn there were parties outside of Democrats and Republicans — which led to a lesson on the Green Party and Libertarians.

Along the way, Serling hopes his students solidify their own principles — and gather practical knowledge about how government affects their lives.

“I try to make it as practical and real life as possible,” he said.

In an email interview, Serling explained why he has students write their opinions before discussing them, how he turns the city into a classroom, and what he learned by dropping a former student off at college.

His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How has the current political climate affected how you teach?

As the political climate has become more polarized, it is easier to take one side or another without actually investigating or understanding the nuance. It is important for me now more than ever to make sure that I check my own political beliefs at my classroom door and engage in discussions and lessons which explore those nuances for my students to grapple with and explore their own political beliefs.

What tips do you have for encouraging and leading productive class discussions, especially when the topics you’re covering can be so polarizing?

A good academic discussion takes time to build. It starts with building a classroom community in which there is trust and respect from the start of the year.

[One]strategy that helps is having them write their response first before engaging in a verbal discussion. It allows students time to think through their beliefs, what evidence they could present, and grapple with the nuance prior to the discussion. It gives them more confidence to speak, knowing they have thought it through in writing, and they can refer to their paper if needed while they are speaking.

What’s the hardest part about getting teenagers engaged in government and politics?

Teenagers have opinions on everything, but they seem to have a ‘that’s just the way it is’ mentality and often choose not to engage in government and politics outside the classroom. It is important to me to keep my lesson as relevant as possible to their lives and present examples of government and politics at work within their community.

I have taken my students to two “Ethics in Action” forums sponsored by New York Society for Ethical Culture. The first was on climate change and the second was on police-community relations [and featured] Police Commissioner James O’Neill.

We have in the past partnered with New York Supreme Court Judge Fernando Tapia and brought the 12th grade government students to engage with the many [professionals] who help make the Bronx Court run. After the trip, many students who admitted they get tense walking past the building felt more at ease.

I will say that an unintended consequence of the recent political scene is that, the more polarized it has become, the more engaged our students have become. Students, more than ever, have been asking questions about things they have seen in the news or on their social media feeds. Many alumni have messaged me with pictures of them attending the Bernie Sanders rally in the Bronx or different protests this past year.

What does your classroom look like?

I like to think of my classroom as NYC. When we can’t go outside for a particular experience, I try and bring that experience into the physical classroom. When learning about the first amendment, we have had a former Young Lord member Iris Morales come in and speak about her experience in the 70’s organizing in East Harlem on issues around economic and social justice.When exploring the workings of criminal and civil trials, we have had an exoneree from the Innocence Project come and speak.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

YouTube. I often use YouTube to show quick visual or auditory clips to help provide context to a lesson. It brings a snapshot of the outside world into the classroom.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are off task?

I do try and be cognizant if the student is off task because they are unclear of the directions or material, if they are being distracted, or if they just need a break as they have been sitting through multiple classes with only a three minute passing.

If… I notice they need a quick break from the content, I often use YouTube to play a clip of a song that I like, which they then call “old people” music (which is sad, because I don’t think music from the 90s is old). It generates a laugh and a quick discussion about the song or artist and then we can go back to the lesson.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

It starts with having a welcoming classroom where everyone is recognized in some way. Be it a high five at the start, a quick check-in, or a general shout-out. I make a point to listen and ask follow-up questions when students speak.

Also, I am okay with allowing them to hear my opinion on certain government topics and current events when asked. It is humanizing and builds trust when you can hear the teacher’s opinions, personal accolades, and struggles.

I also build relationships by being involved outside of the classroom. I coach bowling, I make a point to go to at least one of each sporting event, chaperone trips, dress up during theme days and generally keep my office door open for drop-in conversations. Over time, these experiences build relationships.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I offered to take an alum up to college his freshman year. When I went to pick him up, his entire family including grandmother and little siblings came out to help pack the car. They hugged and we left.

His mother called me the next day to express how thankful she was for taking her son up, who was the first to go to college. She went on to express how ashamed she was that she couldn’t do it, listing numerous reasons, from her not having her drivers license and to taking care of her mother and younger siblings. She went on to say that is one of the reasons she wanted him to stay in the city for college.

This experience helped me approach our seniors a bit more empathetically, while being able to ask some questions to get answers that students may not want to express upfront to help have a more honest conversation with themselves and their parents.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Never forget to listen and learn from your students; they are the best teachers.

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.