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Dyslexia dysfunction 

Arkansas schools are progressing with interventions, but major gaps remain.

click to enlarge OVERCOMING DYSLEXIA: Dallas Guynes Green (left) and Melissa Hannah say many schools are still neglecting struggling readers.
  • OVERCOMING DYSLEXIA: Dallas Guynes Green (left) and Melissa Hannah say many schools are still neglecting struggling readers.

Between 5 and 17 percent of school-age children in the general population are dyslexic, but only about 1.1 percent of Arkansas public school students (including those in charter schools) currently receive dyslexia services.

That's the conclusion of a survey of school districts and charters recently completed by legislative staff at the request of state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock). In 2013, Elliott, a former teacher, crafted a new law requiring schools to screen children for "markers of dyslexia" by second grade and provide appropriate reading interventions.

Some districts have been slow to comply, she told the joint Education Committee of the legislature in March May. In the 2015-16 school year, about 5,400 students out of a statewide student population of around 476,000 received services, according to the survey (answered by all 237 districts and 22 open-enrollment charters in the state). If 11 percent of Arkansas students have dyslexia — the middle of the predicted range for prevalence — then over 50,000 kids should be receiving services.

"I hear from many people even right now that things are not happening, or they're not happening like they should," Elliott said when she presented the report. "This is not optional, and there are still people out there acting like it is optional. On the other hand, there are some districts out there that are knocking it out of the park and doing a fantastic job."

Dyslexia is a common learning disability that results from a specific neurological breakdown in the way the brain processes language. Dyslexic individuals have difficulty "decoding" the written word into phonemes — the sounds that comprise speech — and therefore require interventions geared toward intensive, methodical phonics-based instruction. The new law doesn't mandate any particular intervention program, but the Arkansas Department of Education requires schools to use a program based on what's called the Orton-Gillingham approach, a methodology that emphasizes the basic mechanics of language. About half the schools in Arkansas use an Orton-Gillingham curriculum called the Barton Reading and Spelling System, with the rest being split between other proprietary Orton-Gillingham programs.

Such details matter, dyslexia advocates say, because schools have too often let struggling readers fall through the cracks by implementing ineffective interventions or by implementing good programs poorly. Because reading instruction in the early grades is the gateway skill to all future learning, the bad consequences of failing to teach large numbers of students basic literacy are staggering.

"We know there are huge numbers of people who are in prison who are dyslexic," Elliott said. "Connect that dot and think about what that means for kids." Elliott said the Orton-Gillingham methodology also helps non-dyslexic children who are struggling with language skills. "The reading intervention for dyslexia can work for any kind of reading issue, in most cases. It's just a good response."

Among the most vocal advocates for the new dyslexia law are parents such as Dallas Guynes Green of Bryant. Her son Lucas, now 19, was diagnosed with dyslexia 10 years ago; now graduated from high school, he still struggles with basic reading skills. Upon researching the disorder, Green soon realized that she herself was likely dyslexic (the disorder appears to run in certain families; dyslexia appears to have a genetic basis).

"Basically, I was functionally illiterate when I graduated from high school," she said. "I tried to go to college and it was a nightmare. Everyone in my family chalked it up to me being lazy. ... If you're not a strong reader, it affects everything. Reading is so second nature to people who know how. You don't even think about it; it's like breathing."

Like many dyslexic individuals, Green gradually and painfully learned how to compensate for her reading difficulties and is now a licensed practical nurse. She now belongs to a group of activists pressing schools to implement better reading interventions at an early age. Dyslexic students can learn to read, Green emphasizes, if they are just taught using effective methods.

"If people are taught [in] the way [that] their brains work, then they can learn to read. ... It's such an easy fix if you know what to do and get it done. We should spend more money and put more resources to make sure people get started out right in life. ... As a society, we do not look at that at all."

Melissa Hannah, a speech-language pathologist in North Little Rock who specializes in dyslexia interventions, said Arkansas school districts need to pick up the pace on making sure teachers know what dyslexia is and how to respond to it effectively.

"It's not the teachers' fault; teachers are desperate for more training. They're stuck not knowing how to teach kids." She faults change-averse and budget-conscious school administrators (the law included no new funding for implementation) along with the state Education Department: Some districts "are eager for guidance" about how to better meet the new requirements but are unsure how to do so, Hannah said.

Sen. Elliott agrees the state needs to do more. "I was disappointed in the Arkansas Education Department's lack of proactiveness," she said. "The ADE said they really have no ability to enforce [the law]." (The department has no problem enforcing state takeovers of local school districts in academic or fiscal distress, she added.)

But Vicki King, the Education Department's dyslexia specialist, said the department does not have the necessary regulatory enforcement authority to force districts to implement better dyslexia intervention programs. "The department's role in this is working with the dyslexia specialists at the co-ops," she said, referring to the Education Service Cooperatives. The department disseminates information to administrators and teachers in professional development through the state's 15 regional education cooperatives. "We can go to a school and offer assistance ... but it's not like we're coming in to catch them," King said.

Despite the gaps, responses to Elliot's survey nonetheless indicate progress: In the previous school year, 2014-15, only about 2,300 students received such services, as opposed to 5,400 in 2015-16. Over half of the districts and charters in the state did not even respond to a question asking how many students received services in 2014-15. More schools are beginning to ensure their reading interventionists — a staff position that already existed in schools before the law went into effect — are properly trained in the phonics-based instructional approaches that work with both dyslexic students and also non-dyslexic students who struggle with reading.

Elliott said she couldn't publicly distribute data showing each district's numbers because the survey questions were part of a larger legislative research effort that guaranteed schools' anonymity, but that she'd gladly provide the information to any legislator interested in his or her home district. (Also, while the legislature can't provide the public with that district-level information, parents and other education advocates can request it directly from school districts and charters themselves.)

"There are some places where [the number of students receiving services] is very, very high and other places where it's very low," she said.

Elliott said she also has concerns that some schools may not be implementing early reading interventions "with fidelity" — perhaps complying with the letter of the mandate, that is, but not investing the time, energy and funding necessary to ensure a truly effective program. Using the right intervention in the right way is crucial, she said. "If you have a headache, I hope I don't give you something for your toe."

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