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It’s an ongoing, systemic frustration for Gabrielle Heisey, and certainly a sad situation for her son.
Diagnosed with dyslexia when he was 9 and with autism before then, Heisey’s son “still pretty much reads at the same level that he did when he was first diagnosed, which is about kindergarten to first grade level,” even though he has consistently attended an Albuquerque public school, Heisey said.
Her son, now 15, did have some behavioral problems related to his autism, and Heisey had him transferred to other schools multiple times. Still, she said, “even when his behaviors weren’t impacting his education, they still weren’t making meaningful progress on his reading.”
Part of the problem, she contends, has been a lack of teachers who have expertise in teaching reading to students with dyslexia, and the programs that were available to kids with learning disabilities were not specific to dyslexia. She felt students with varying learning disabilities were lumped together.
State and local education officials acknowledge there are huge challenges to providing every student the precise support they need. But they say recent changes – some mandated by new laws – include additional training for how to teach children with dyslexia and screening of all first graders to more quickly identify those who need the additional help.
Albuquerque Public Schools officials said they couldn’t speak specifically to the situation Heisey says she has encountered, but Stephanie Fascitelli, APS’ associate superintendent for special education, said the district does have literacy programs tailored to kids with dyslexia. Students with dyslexia attend regular education classes, but are pulled for scheduled specialized instruction throughout the day, she said.
The International Dyslexia Association describes the condition as neurobiological in nature and characterized by symptoms that impede language skills, including reading, spelling, writing, pronouncing words and comprehension.
In simpler terms, according to Dyslexic Reading Connection Inc., for preschoolers it can involve delayed speech, mixing up the sounds or syllables in long words such as “aminal,” persistent confusion with right vs. left and difficulty creating words that rhyme. Past the first grade, it can involve reversal of numbers or letters, choppy reading and skipping or misreading prepositions such as “at,” “to” or “of.” Even dread of school, with physical symptoms like a stomach ache, can be a warning sign.
About 15% to 20% of the general population is affected by dyslexia. Despite those high numbers, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, does not list dyslexia as one of the 13 conditions that require public schools to provide special education services to eligible students.
The IDEA does, however, list one of those 13 conditions as “Specific Learning Disability,” or SLD, an umbrella term covering disorders that affect a student’s ability to read, write, listen, speak, reason or do math, Fascitelli said.
Albuquerque Public Schools, the largest school district in the state with a student population of about 80,000, has 14,200 students with a disability that requires the creation of an individualized education plan, or IEP. About 7,000 of the students qualify under the SLD category, and 2,960 of that group have characteristics of dyslexia, Fascitelli said.
However, not every student who displays characteristics of dyslexia qualifies for special education services. But those who have such tendencies and can show that it’s impeding their ability to learn, can qualify under the SLD category for special services and an individualized education plan, Fascitelli said.
New Mexico is now implementing new programs aimed at better identifying and helping students with dyslexia.
Under state law, all first grade students now must be screened for dyslexia within the first 40 days of the school year and by teachers who have been trained in how to administer the screening assessments.
Further, the state Public Education Department recently produced a Dyslexia Handbook that lays out the logistics and goals of screenings, the professional development for teachers to learn a “structured literacy” approach in teaching dyslexic children and the interventions that are to be provided for qualifying students as part of their IED.
To be clear, “screening is not a diagnosis, it is a way to determine which students have characteristics of dyslexia,” according to APS’ Fascitelli.
A diagnosis, she said, requires a formal clinical evaluation, and most parents don’t have that done.
She acknowledged that in the past, one of the factors impeding the teaching of reading has been “a lack of instruction, and really appropriate instruction.”
“I do think that PED is addressing this as we speak by having these dyslexia screeners and having appropriate professional development for teachers in kindergarten, first and second grades, and giving teachers access to the LETRS program,” Fascitelli said.
LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) is a program that provides teachers the skills to master the fundamentals of reading instruction – phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, writing and language.
In the past, Fascitelli said, “teachers didn’t graduate from institutions knowing how to teach reading, myself included,” and that applies to teaching both special needs students and regular education kids.
With the PED mandates on dyslexia screenings and access to LETRS, “it kind of solidifies that letter-sound knowledge and phonemic awareness, and I think that’s our greatest step forward toward fixing this,” she said.
The Public Education Department is responsible for tracking the results of the dyslexia screenings of the first graders. During the last school year, Albuquerque Public Schools had 5,259 first graders enrolled, of which 4,712 were screened using the Teach Me or Istation assessments. According to those screenings, 2,350 students displayed signs of being at high risk for dyslexia. That’s nearly half of the first graders who were screened – significantly higher than the 15% to 20% estimate of dyslexia in the general population.
The adoption of dyslexia screenings, publication of the Dyslexia Handbook and access to the LETRS program are enhancements to what APS says it has been doing for many years.
According to Claudia Gutierrez, APS’ executive director of student achievement, special education, APS has for the last 20 years been using several “structured literacy” programs in teaching students who are dyslexic. During that time, APS has trained teachers in how to teach using structured literacy, she said.
Although it’s “the expectation” that all teachers who work with dyslexic kids will undergo the structured literacy training, Gutierrez said it is not mandatory.
“The basic concept behind a structured literacy program is it teaches how to read through decoding, which is looking at the letters within the word and determining how they’re going to sound, and encoding, which is teaching the word through spelling.”
Further, structured literacy aims to make that sound-symbol association automatic, Gutierrez said. Studies based on brain imaging show that the brains of kids reading proficiently are activated differently than kids who struggle while reading.
“For kids who are dyslexic, those parts of the brain aren’t working the same, so you’re building those synapses to get them better at it,” she said.
Since the mid 1990s, Gail Stewart, an attorney in New Mexico and a co-founder of OPEN, Organizing Parents Education Network, has represented students with learning disabilities “who needed highly specialized reading instruction and could not get it in the public schools,” she said.
When she first began representing these students, “I thought it was just a matter of getting in there and doing some advocacy and litigation,” she said. “But I did not realize the depth of the resistance from the public schools.”
Even though she is starting to see some “positive possibilities,” Stewart also said “most kids are still not getting the appropriate interventions and when they need them.”
Over the years, Stewart has filed complaints in more than half of the 89 school districts in the state, with the most common complaint related to reading instruction, she said.
“It would be inaccurate for APS to say that for 20 years it has been providing classroom teachers with sufficient training in structured literacy to appropriately teach students with dyslexia,” she said.
Rather, what APS offered was limited availability of structured literacy for a few students, “but the level of training and number of people trained has been insufficient to meet the needs.”
“So if you think about teaching reading to a student with dyslexia as being a higher level intervention, you have to understand the science and you have to know what you’re doing,” she said. “Up until maybe recently, they haven’t had very many people who had that kind of training.”
The reading instruction that’s needed for a child with dyslexia “is good reading instruction for anybody,” Stewart said. “The problem is we have a large workforce that was not provided pre-service training … to be able to teach reading, though I think that’s changing somewhat and there are now some courses in teaching reading, but it’s variable.”
If you have comment or know of any literacy programs in the state the Journal has not publicized so far, please email email@example.com with your suggestions. You can see all previous stories and programs at abqjournal.com/literacy.