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Article of Interest - Dyslexia

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Bridges4Kids LogoDyslexics: Left Behind
Despite the law, schools don't do enough to identify, educate dyslexics, advocates say.
By Jennifer Radcliffe, Star-Telegram, January 4, 2004
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While his classmates at Bedford Junior High School studied Shakespeare, seventh-grader Sean Fraser struggled to read simple words such as "cat" and "sat."

Teachers shrugged off Sean's reading problems, assuming he would catch up. One educator even suggested that he was faking the problems.

His mother, Gale Bessire, gave up on the public school system when Sean reached ninth grade. She spent $60,000 over four years to hire a tutor and send her severely dyslexic son to a private high school.

Today, Bessire spends her evenings reading college auto mechanics textbooks to her 18-year-old son.

She wonders how much easier his life would have been if the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district had complied with a 1985 state law that requires schools to identify and educate students with dyslexia.

"What did they do for him?" Bessire asked. "Nothing. If it wasn't for me, he still wouldn't be able to read as well as he does."

People who read poorly often wind up in low-paying jobs, on welfare rolls or in jail, at a cost to the country of $224 billion a year, according to the National Right to Read Foundation.

Yet, many public school districts in North Texas have not fully complied with the law, the Star-Telegram has found. Schools aren't identifying students early enough, and they're not providing them with the required help.

As many as 20 percent of children have dyslexia or a related disorder, but a Star-Telegram survey of 16 area districts found that nine of them are providing the state-mandated help to less than 1 percent of their students. Six others are helping 1 percent to 3 percent. One -- the Greenville school district -- provides help to 7.7 percent.

Several other districts declined to provide the number of students in their dyslexia programs.

Public school educators said that their dyslexia programs comply with the law but that providing the tutoring -- which requires additional materials, training and teachers -- can be a financial burden. They also said that the disability is sometimes hard to identify.

Dyslexics have difficulty spelling, recognizing and sounding out words. Reading is like trying to make sense of a foreign language they've never studied. They don't see letters and words backward, as is commonly believed, but they mispronounce complicated or unfamiliar words and confuse words that sound alike, such as "tornado" and "volcano" or "lotion" and "ocean."

"Some of those same characteristics occur in normal children," said Mary Arthur, who runs Grapevine-Colleyville's dyslexia program.

The issue came to a head this summer in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district, which enrolled only 29 of its 20,000 students, or 0.15 percent, in a dyslexia program last school year. A persistent group of parents forced the school board to take notice of deficiencies, and officials overhauled the program this fall to include more students and to provide better instruction.

Such grassroots efforts are one of the few ways that parents can force districts to comply with the law, especially after the Legislature gutted the state's oversight in the spring.

Before, state auditors periodically visited campuses to make sure programs, including the dyslexia program, complied with the laws. Soon, districts will effectively police themselves; they will fill out online questionnaires in lieu of the regular campus visits.

When districts fail to comply with the law, students with dyslexia often flounder in regular classes or are inappropriately placed in special education tracks, educators and parents say. Those students may needlessly fall behind and struggle to reach their full potential.

"We're in a mess. We're just in a mess," said State Board of Education Chairwoman Geraldine "Tincy" Miller, who pushed through Texas' dyslexia law 18 years ago. "I'm very upset about it. They're taking the accountability piece out of the whole process."

Difficult diagnosis

Schools should begin testing children for dyslexia in kindergarten -- "the earlier the better," according to The Dyslexia Handbook: Procedures Concerning Dyslexia and Related Disorders, which outlines the Texas law.

A substantial amount of national research, including reports used to support President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, shows that if children cannot read at grade level by fourth grade, there is a 75 percent chance they will never catch up.

A 1996 state law reinforces the importance of early testing by requiring schools to assess the reading skills of all kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders. Those who are identified as being at risk for dyslexia must receive immediate instruction.

Each campus that has identified students with dyslexia must develop a program that includes intense, individualized phonics instruction in small groups, the law says. Teachers who lead the groups must be trained in dyslexia.

Research shows that dyslexics use different -- and less efficient -- parts of their brains to read than nondyslexics. It also shows that when dyslexics are provided the type of intense phonics tutoring required under Texas' 1985 law, they begin using the more efficient parts of their brains.

Texas' curriculum calls for the use of both whole-language and phonics techniques in reading instruction. Some children thrive with whole-language instruction, which emphasizes using context clues and memorization to learn to read, but dyslexic children do not, experts say.

They need to be taught how language works in a methodical and repetitive way, the experts say.

Without that type of instruction, dyslexic students will struggle to associate written letters with corresponding sounds. They may not, for instance, understand that the word "cat" breaks down into three unique sounds.

Dyslexic children, all of whom have average or above-average intelligence, can often be perceived as lazy or inattentive if their learning disorder is not diagnosed.

They are at risk of joining the ranks of the 90 million U.S. adults who are, at best, functionally literate, meaning they can read just well enough to get by.

Sean Fraser worries about how he will earn a living. He fears that he will never be able to read manuals about today's high-tech cars well enough to become a certified mechanic.

"It's real frustrating," he said. "The way everything works, you've got to read to do almost anything."

Some educators call dyslexia a gift of sorts. They believe dyslexics have an easier time thinking creatively and point to famous dyslexics such as businessman Charles Schwab, designer Tommy Hilfiger, political consultant James Carville, and actors Whoopi Goldberg and Keira Knightley.

"I really feel strongly that these children could be the stars of the school," said Valerie Tucker, a certified academic language therapist who teaches educators how to work with dyslexic students at Literacy Education & Academic Development in Argyle. "They're the brightest kids. I think we should give them every advantage we can."

Bound by law

Miller, the state board chairwoman, spent years believing that her son, Vance Jr., was a slow learner.

He struggled to put his thoughts on paper. His teachers in the Highland Park school district couldn't figure out what was wrong or how to help.

At 13, he still couldn't read well. He acted up frequently and experimented with drugs. By 19, he had dropped out of school.

Miller, who was earning her certification as an academic language therapist and working as a reading specialist at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas, confided to a co-worker that she was devastated by her son's behavior. She talked about his struggles to read and his constant behavior problems.

The co-worker suggested that Miller have her son tested for dyslexia.

The tests, conducted in the late 1970s, showed that Vance Miller Jr. had a near-genius IQ of 145. They also showed that he had dysgraphia, a form of dyslexia that makes it extremely difficult for people to express themselves in writing.

Miller regrets that her son's teachers weren't trained to identify the learning disability.

"I had to look to the school to give me guidance," she said. "I really and truly did not get any guidance. I got a lot of mixed messages."

Miller became an expert in reading disabilities, which led to her 1984 appointment to the State Board of Education. Immediately, she championed the passage of Texas' dyslexia law.

The 1985 law was groundbreaking for dyslexic students, said Gladys Kolenovsky, administrative director for the Luke Waites Child Development Center at Scottish Rite Hospital, a national leader in dyslexia diagnosis, instruction and teacher training.

"Texas did something no state had ever done before and very few have done since," she said. "If you have a child with dyslexia, Texas is the state where you want to be."

The law, Texas Education Code 38.003, says that students in public schools shall be tested for dyslexia and related disorders and that each school district shall provide special instruction for those students.

For years, Miller -- dubbed the "dyslexia lady" -- received calls from parents with emotional stories about school districts that were ignoring the law.

In 1990, more than 800 people attended a public hearing in Austin to discuss the law and the lack of compliance.

"There was incredible testimony," Miller said.

A high school principal acknowledged for the first time in public that he was dyslexic. A mother told of how her son's dyslexia so damaged his self-esteem that he eventually committed suicide. People with doctoral degrees argued about whether dyslexia existed.

In 1991, the state approved rules to clarify and support the law. The rules are published in The Dyslexia Handbook, a publication periodically updated by the Texas Education Agency.

The rules provide school districts with specific requirements for testing and instruction, but Miller knows the law is not being followed in many districts.

One reason, she said, is that she was unable to get the state to provide a per-student money allotment for dyslexia programs. Special education students and gifted-and-talented students, on the other hand, generate additional funds for districts.

The training and supplies needed to comply with the law require a financial commitment that some districts won't make, Miller said.

Advocates also fear that districts are taking advantage of vagueness and local control built into the law.

For example, the law says teachers must be trained in dyslexia, but it does not provide specifics. Some districts send teachers to a two-hour workshop. Other districts ask teachers to complete a 700-hour academic language therapist certification program.

Still, by the late 1990s, Miller believed that she had made great strides. The law was on the books, and her son, at 37, had turned his life around, earning a degree from Southern Methodist University and joining the family real estate business, the Henry S. Miller Co.

Then, in 1997, Vance Miller Jr. died in a car accident.

In her grief, Miller wondered whether the entire course of his life might have been different if he had been successful in school. Maybe, she thought, he wouldn't have died in that crash.

His death made her fight harder to make sure that other children don't fall through the cracks.

That would be easier to do if districts followed the law, she said.

Reluctantly, she added: "There's a lot of reasons, I guess, for schools to not implement this law."

One of the most heartbreaking, she said, is educators' reluctance to understand dyslexia and its symptoms.

"Even with the law, even with all the research ... there are still people, educators, to this day who will not accept the fact that there is such a thing as dyslexia," she said.

Falling short

A school district that provides dyslexia instruction to fewer than 2 percent or 3 percent of its students is not doing its job, according to Dr. Jeffrey Black at Scottish Rite Hospital. Ideally, about 10 percent of students should be attending the programs, his colleagues say.

More children than that have dyslexia, but some will be able to succeed without extra help, and others may require special education classes, experts say.

But most area districts fall short of Black's target and don't even come close to 10 percent.

In the 62,000-student Arlington district, for example, only 55 dyslexic students, or 0.09 percent, receive dyslexia instruction. The 13,800-student Grapevine-Colleyville school district has 14 students, or 0.1 percent, in dyslexia classes. The Fort Worth school district offers dyslexia instruction to about 300, or 0.37 percent, of its 81,000 students.

Schools either don't know what they're looking for or are trying to avoid diagnosing dyslexia, experts say. Public schools usually wait too long to diagnose dyslexia in elementary students and then provide no dyslexia instruction to teen-agers, they say.

But some school officials say the experts' estimates are too high.

"I personally don't think it's 10 percent," said Arthur, who oversees Grapevine-Colleyville's dyslexia program. "I have a hard time thinking that 1,300 children in the district would have dyslexia."

The Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district, which has traditionally had few students in its program, expects the number to increase now that it has changed its qualifying standards.

Previously, the district's program included only students who failed the state's standardized reading test. But consultant Debbie Easom of Granbury-based Dyslexia Solutions told school leaders to eliminate that criteria because many dyslexic children can pass the untimed test if they work at it all day.

"We recognize the fact that we were probably underidentifying," Assistant Superintendent Steve Chapman said.

Some administrators defend the practice of delaying dyslexia instruction, saying it is almost impossible to tell whether a child has dyslexia until the third grade. Younger children might show some symptoms of dyslexia that they will outgrow, they said. Other educators said they do not want to label children.

"We want to do that as a last intervention," said Cindy Brown, director of special services for the Northwest school district. "Dyslexia is a lifelong condition. Labels are a lifelong thing. You want to be sure they're right."

Miller said she's tired of what she calls districts' excuses. Third grade is not early enough, she said.

"That just makes me sick," she said. "That just flies in the face of all the new research. It's the old-fashioned approach: wait until they fail."

Warning signs for dyslexia can be identified in children as young as 3, said Joyce Pickering, executive director of The Shelton School in Dallas, the largest school in the country for children with learning disabilities.

The school diagnoses learning disorders in young children using test results from 15 areas, including motor and language skills. Dyslexics exhibit significant differences in visual and auditory skills, but many kindergarten teachers don't know what to look for, she said.

"It's not that they're mean, horrible people," Pickering said. "They don't think that they can help."

Sue Cantrell, an academic language therapist for The Shelton School and a mother of three children with learning disabilities, said many area school districts also fail to identify and treat older dyslexic students.

"It breaks my heart when I look at these kids who are in the eighth grade and are undiagnosed and have been struggling all these years," she said. "It's almost too late. By then, they're pretty damaged."

Several administrators, however, said that almost all dyslexic children are diagnosed in elementary school, eliminating the need for most middle school and high school programs.

"It would be very strange for a child to get to junior high age and for no one to have picked it up before that," said Maggie Stevens, special education director in the Everman school district. "That would be really sad."

Cantrell and other experts said programs for teen-agers are necessary because many students go undiagnosed in elementary school. And many who were identified in elementary school will need continued tutoring, Cantrell said.

Different approaches

Districts often don't comply with all of the law's requirements, and there's no mechanism to punish them.

The state's Dyslexia Handbook, for example, says that "each school must provide each identified student access at his or her campus to the services of a teacher trained in dyslexia."

But the Arlington school district buses dyslexic students to classes at three of its 50 elementary campuses, said Roberta Carter, the district's dyslexia coordinator.

Dyslexic students who remain at their home campuses are considered to have mild cases and are taught in regular classrooms.

"If that child needs individual one-on-one, then our classroom teachers make time for that," Carter said. "The reason I feel comfortable that we are meeting the law is because we train. We encourage staff development. It's a total understanding."

Carter said that when dyslexic students read from books and written material, they are encouraged to follow along with a pencil.

"It's the key to helping that dyslexic student," she said.

But experts say phonics tutoring -- not following along with a pencil -- will help dyslexic students.

The law also says that dyslexic students must be given personalized phonics help in small groups led by a trained teacher.

The Fort Worth district, however, doesn't remove any child with dyslexia from the regular classroom.

"It has been determined that the [classroom] reading programs we currently have in adoption qualify as dyslexia programs," said June Davis, Fort Worth school district coordinator of student support services.

Students who need more help may be shown Scottish Rite reading videos in their regular classrooms.

"We don't have pull-out programs," Davis said. "That's just not something we subscribe to. We want to keep children in the regular classroom."

An expert at Scottish Rite Hospital said a teacher would have to be talented to juggle regular classroom duties and simultaneously provide individualized phonics instruction in small groups to dyslexic children.

In the Crowley school district, some dyslexic students are encouraged to place colored transparencies over their work, a controversial technique.

"Often dyslexia students have light sensitivity," said Janet Wynne, who oversees Crowley's dyslexia program. "Print may shift or shake or blur."

The colored transparencies keep the print from moving for dyslexic children, she said.

But medical experts said dyslexia does not affect children's vision.

"People who have dyslexia see things the same way you and I do," pediatrician Vennecia Jackson, director of diagnostic services for Scottish Rite Hospital, told parents at a recent seminar.

New challenges

Miller is reluctant to push for a stronger law. Getting it passed was a battle, and she worries that if the issue is reopened, the law could be wiped off the books.

But she does plan to work to replace the enforcement mechanism, which lawmakers all but eliminated this year.

The Texas Education Agency is developing a system under which each district will provide statistics about special programs to the state via electronic forms. State employees will review the documents, and if any items raise red flags, the state can dispatch a team to visit the school district.

Previously, teams of state monitors periodically visited districts to check whether they complied with guidelines for state and federally funded programs. Dyslexia programs were included in the visits, although they do not receive funding.

The state required corrective action and a follow-up report from schools that were not in compliance, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, TEA spokeswoman.

A spokesman for state Sen. Teel Bivins' office said the Amarillo Republican sponsored legislation to reduce the compliance visits to save districts money and to make the education system more efficient.

"If they're going to fudge numbers, they're going to fudge numbers," said the spokesman, who said he wasn't allowed to give his name. "We can't legislate morality."

Now, the burden of making sure a district complies will fall largely to parents, Graves Ratcliffe said.

"The parents could talk to their principal and their school board and get compliance, but beyond that there's probably not much" that can be done, she said.

Miller said she worries that school districts will not be honest on the TEA forms.

She and other advocates said they will continue their efforts to help dyslexic students. They'll continue to tell parents about their rights under the 1985 dyslexia law and to push for more stringent enforcement.

"I'm going to bring this out in the light," Miller said.

Texas law requires public school districts to identify students with dyslexia and related disorders and to provide them with personalized instruction. Experts say the programs should serve no less than 2 percent of a district's population. Here is the percentage of students in area districts' dyslexia programs during the 2002-2003 school year:
Arlington 0.1%
Birdville 1.7%
Carroll 1.8%
Eagle-Mountain Saginaw 1.0%
Fort Worth 0.4%
Frisco 2.5%
Grapevine-Colleyville 0.1%
Greenville 7.7%
Hurst-Euless-Bedford 0.2%
Keller 0.3%
Lewisville 2.4%
Mansfield 0.4%
Northwest 0.2%
Plano 0.8%
Richardson 0.1%
Wylie 2.5%
SOURCES: Area disticts and Texas Education Agency.


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