Ga. law­mak­ers see dys­lexia as largely hid­den prob­lem

Bill would re­quire screen­ing kids, cre­ate train­ing for teach­ers.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Ty Tagami [email protected]

Jay Leno and Richard Bran­son have it. So does Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Gavin New­som. And if you’re in a room with 10 kids, one or two of them may also have it.

Ten to 20 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives with dys­lexia, re­searchers say, with most prob­a­bly go­ing un­di­ag­nosed. The fed­eral govern­ment re­quires schools to help chil­dren who have it, but many par­ents, as well as other con­cerned fam­ily mem­bers, say they aren’t getting that help.

“Some­thing is wrong with the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem if this is con­sid­ered ac­cept­able,” said Florine Wood, who said her twin grand­sons read like chil­dren in sec­ond grade though they are 12. Be­sides fall­ing be­hind, their self-es­teem has been sunk by their in­abil­ity to read and write “be­cause their ed­u­ca­tional needs are not be­ing met.”

Sto­ries like this have cap­tured the at­ten­tion of Ge­or­gia law­mak­ers who want new man­dates in the way schools deal with dys­lexia. Sen­ate Bill 48 would re­quire screen­ing for ev­ery stu­dent start­ing in kinder­garten. It also would es­tab­lish dys­lexia train­ing pro­grams for cur­rent teach­ers and re­quire that ev­ery would-be teacher at­tend­ing a pub­lic col­lege get such spe­cial­ized in­struc­tion.

Un­like Ge­or­gia, most states in the re­gion have laws on dys­lexia, ac­cord­ing to the South­ern Re­gional Ed­u­ca­tion Board, a re­search in­sti­tu­tion es­tab­lished by gover­nors. But Ge­or­gia would be a leader if it passes a law man­dat­ing dys­lexia train­ing in teacher col­leges, be­com­ing the fifth of 16 South­ern states to do so.

Teach­ers who’ve had dys­lexia train­ing marvel at what they were miss­ing.

“It has changed my teach­ing dras­ti­cally,” said Kelsey McCorkle, who was among a group of At­lanta teach­ers trained in the Or­ton-Gilling­ham method. The decades­old teach­ing sys­tem helps dyslexic stu­dents cope with the dif­fer­ent wiring of their brains. Teach­ers learn dif­fer­ent ways to com­mu­ni­cate how to break words down into their ba­sic com­po­nents. For in­stance, with tac­tile learn­ers, McCorkle uses a sand­box or shav­ing cream, so her kinder­gart­ners can move their whole arms through the out­lines of let­ters, and feel them.

Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, is the lead spon­sor on the bi­par­ti­san bill, the first to get a hear­ing in the Sen­ate Ed­u­ca­tion and Youth Com­mit­tee in this young leg­isla­tive ses­sion. Martin is the new com­mit­tee chair­man.

As peo­ple he knew re­vealed they had been liv­ing with the con­di­tion, Martin came to see a sig­nif­i­cant but hid­den prob­lem. Two of three Ge­or­gia chil­dren can­not read pro­fi­ciently by third grade, and Martin is among a grow­ing con­tin­gent who point to un­di­ag­nosed dys­lexia as a rea­son.

“There are a lot of kids that strug­gle with it,” he said. Ge­or­gia does the bare min­i­mum re­quired un­der fed­eral law, which men­tions dys­lexia al­most in pass­ing and doesn’t tell states how to de­tect it. “Our code is silent on dys­lexia.”

School dis­tricts, many with tight bud­gets and ris­ing spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion costs, would only have to do the screen­ing if the Leg­is­la­ture al­lo­cates fund­ing for it. The re­spon­si­bil­ity for teacher train­ing, mean­while, would fall on state agen­cies and on teacher col­leges. A for­mer se­na­tor who has re­searched the cost of screen­ing es­ti­mated it to be about $1 mil­lion a year.

Martin is car­ry­ing on the work of his Sen­ate col­league Fran Mil­lar. Be­fore the Dun­woody Repub­li­can lost his seat to a Demo­crat last fall, Mil­lar spent the sum­mer lead­ing a Sen­ate study com­mit­tee on dys­lexia. Mil­lar, who’d been a leader on K-12 pol­icy in the Sen­ate, said he knew lit­tle about dys­lexia un­til a woman stood up at a com­mu­nity meet­ing two years ago and asked him what he was do­ing about it.

Puz­zled, he be­gan re­search­ing and dis­cov­ered a pop­u­la­tion of strug­gling stu­dents and their anx­ious and ag­o­nized par­ents. Peo­ple he knew, in­clud­ing a fel­low law­maker, dis­closed that they had dys­lexia. He con­cluded that of­fi­cials feared the scope of the prob­lem and the cost of ad­dress­ing it.

“I think a lot of peo­ple don’t want to ad­mit that it ex­ists,” he said. “If we do ad­mit it, what are we go­ing to do about it?”

But the pain of the young is a hard thing to ig­nore. Bar­rett Howard, a high school se­nior, was among the stu­dents who tes­ti­fied at Mil­lar’s study com­mit­tee.

In third grade, he couldn’t write his own name, he said in an in­ter­view last week. Teach­ers thought he was lazy when he re­jected read­ing as­sign­ments. That year he was paired with a kinder­gart­ner in a “book buddy” pro­gram where one kid, usu­ally the el­der, is sup­posed to read to the other.

“The kinder­gart­ner I got paired with could read bet­ter than I could,” he said. It was a frus­trat­ing time.

That he can read to­day is a tes­ta­ment to his mother’s will, to her con­nec­tions, to her knowl­edge of schools and to fam­ily money, a unique com­bi­na­tion that she re­al­izes few fac­ing sim­i­lar chal­lenges pos­sess. The di­rec­tor of a pri­vate preschool, she comes from a fam­ily of teach­ers with ties to ed­u­ca­tors who ad­vised her as she be­came in­creas­ingly con­cerned that her lit­tle boy wasn’t learn­ing to read with the other kids.

With help from her par­ents, Emily Howard said she paid thou­sands of dol­lars for a pri­vate eval­u­a­tion that con­firmed dys­lexia. But when she took it to the City Schools of De­catur, she said, they re­jected it, sug­gest­ing the psy­chol­o­gist had merely given her the out­come she wanted. So she hired an at­tor­ney. Nearly $10,000 later, she man­aged to get her son into a spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram, where he got one-on-one at­ten­tion and other help.

Howard said manda­tory early screen­ing would have saved her son from years of missed learn­ing. As stu­dents age past third grade, a teach­ing adage goes, they shift from learn­ing to read to read­ing to learn. Any de­lay in ac­quir­ing the cru­cial skill can doom a stu­dent’s prospects.

A De­catur schools of­fi­cial said the dis­trict can­not, by law, dis­cuss spe­cific cases of in­di­vid­ual stu­dents, but said the dis­trict fol­lows the state rules when de­ter­min­ing if a stu­dent is el­i­gi­ble for spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices.

Tina Eng­berg, whose son reads like a sec­ond-grader, knows the con­se­quences of not learn­ing to read well. Re­cently, the 13-year-old was look­ing at a $5 bill and could not make out a word near Lin­coln’s right ear: “ten­der.” He can­not read the menu when they go to Chick-fil-A.

Chil­dren like him are clever. When young, they can fool teach­ers into think­ing they can read. They mem­o­rize. They make ex­cuses for missed home­work. They talk their way out of as­sign­ments. Then, af­ter fourth grade, the words grow longer, the ma­te­rial harder, the grad­ing more se­ri­ous.

He’s not go­ing to get a diploma un­less she wills him to it, said Eng­berg, the state leader of a vol­un­teer group called De­cod­ing Dys­lexia.

Manda­tory screen­ing will force the is­sue once ev­ery­one re­al­izes the scope, she said.

“My hope with this bill is it will make it a harder prob­lem for school dis­tricts to ig­nore.”

PHO­TOS BY ALYSSA POINTER / [email protected]

Kinder­garten teacher Kelsey McCorkle works with Liz­beth (left) and Ami­nah dur­ing a phon­ics les­son Thurs­day at Ben­teen El­e­men­tary School in At­lanta. Ten to 20 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives with dys­lexia, re­searchers say, with most likely un­di­ag­nosed.

Kinder­garten teacher Kelsey McCorkle in­tro­duces a di­graph to her stu­dents in a phon­ics les­son Thurs­day at Ben­teen El­e­men­tary in At­lanta.

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