Retiring after about five years on the job, David Cash will leave his post as superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District in July.
Dear Dr. Cash,
I nervously met you shortly after you became Superintendent of Schools. As a baseball mom, seeing the Dodgers memorabilia on display in your office helped me relax.
We were there not to chat about baseball but to discuss dyslexia.
We focused on the one in five students who struggle with reading, writing, and spelling due to their dyslexia. You knew about the district’s 1990 Dyslexia Task Force that was largely forgotten over time. You asked for articles and books about dyslexia and encouraged me to continue to raise awareness in the schools and the community. We even talked about bringing a dyslexic speaker to town.
At the time, my dyslexic son was a freshman at Santa Barbara High, and we agreed to keep in touch about his classroom experiences — what worked and what didn’t, figuring we could learn how to help him and other dyslexic students.
Since then much has improved for students with dyslexia. I’d just like to list a few changes so that you — and members of our community — have a sense of what a difference your visionary leadership has made:
• The creation of the Parent Resource Center at the district office. When Joan and Les Esposito retired and closed the Dyslexia Awareness Resource Center, you accepted the unique and valuable library they donated. You allowed the transition of a once dingy storage room into a bright and welcoming public space. Since then, students, families, and educators, members of the media and elected officials have visited and utilized the resources available there. Now it has its own Facebook page (SBUSD Parent Resource Center) and a full-time bilingual staffer.
• Instituting Learning Ally in the district as a resource for students who have difficulty accessing print materials. Learning Ally provides textbooks, novels, and other print materials in human-voice-recorded audio form — easily downloadable on computers and mobile devices. This allows students with dyslexia and others to “ear read” more efficiently than they can read with their eyes. Learning Ally sought out Santa Barbara Unified for its pilot program because officials recognized the progress being made here.
• Distinguished Speaker Series. In 2014 filmmaker Harvey Hubbell presented his film Dislecksia: The Movie, at Santa Barbara High during his national tour, attracting an evening audience of 650! In 2015, author of High School Dropout to Harvard John Rodrigues presented, and this year, on May 11, acclaimed author Victor Villasenor will share his story at La Cumbre Junior High. These inspirational events have put a human face — and a sense of triumph — on dyslexia, something we talked about years ago.
• A more inclusive approach in the classroom. The district’s commitment to inclusion has created more classes that are “co-taught,” allowing special ed and general ed teachers to team up, giving essential one-on-one help for students. I know a dyslexic high school student, enrolled in co-taught classes, who is earning straight As for the first time in his life.
• More help for educators. More conversation about dyslexia in classrooms during Disability Awareness Days. More opportunities for professional training in dyslexia for teachers, and even a new special education reading committee that is selecting a reading program specifically designed for dyslexic students.
• Leadership in Community Awareness. School board members have been interested in learning more about dyslexia; they have issued proclamations for dyslexia awareness and supported expenditures to enhance services for dyslexic students. When the County Board of Supervisors designated Dyslexia Awareness Month in October 2015, and commended the school district for its efforts, you stated that this was one of the most important days of your career.
• Proactivity. One portion of California’s dyslexia law, AB 1369 (cosponsored by Das Williams), has helped identify students, but statewide guidelines won’t take effect until 2017-2018. Santa Barbara Unified is making changes before legally required. The recognition of special education students’ needs in the LCAP [Local Control and Accountability Plan] budgeting process also indicates positive change.
Still, our schools aren’t as accessible to dyslexic students as they should be: Early identification, proper reading programs, and assistive technology expertise are essential; qualified dyslexic students should be accommodated in advanced placement (AP) classes. While Common Core’s emphasis on collaboration and project-based learning is beneficial, concern remains whether new standardized tests will allow dyslexic students to fully demonstrate their knowledge.
Your leadership has empowered others: My dyslexic son graduated with honors last spring and earned an academic scholarship at a four-year private college. Principal John Becchio just received Honorable Mention from Learning Ally for his innovative approaches to dyslexia at Santa Barbara High. We’re even working on making American Sign Language courses available for dyslexic students for whom foreign language study is problematic.
So thank you, Dr. Cash, and the team you inspired, for making a difference in the lives of the one in five. We hope that the next person who steps into your office— once cleared of all that cool baseball stuff — has as much a commitment to dyslexic students as you have shown.
Cheri Rae is director of The Dyslexia Project, the author of DyslexiaLand, and the regional leader of Decoding Dyslexia-CA. Contact her at TheDyslexiaProject@gmail.com or www.dyslexiaproject.com.