We go to the school. We meet. We ask. We plead. Eventually we beg: “Please, please, please, implement best practices to instruct my dyslexic child how to read, write and spell. Please teach them and don’t hurt them.”
Too often we have to fight. We don’t want to. We never imagined we would have to. But educational services don’t come easy for dyslexic students in this part of the world. Parents who have the means dig deep into their pockets to pay for private services the public schools fail to deliver. Those who cannot pay have few choices except to hope and pray.
Educators stall. They say be patient. They tell us not to worry. Then they dig in, saying our children should try harder, work longer and care more. They offer reading programs designed for slow learners or English Language Learners, but not for dyslexic learners.
We educate ourselves and wonder: “Do they even know how to teach a student with dyslexia?”
Although effective approaches to teaching reading to dyslexic students have been known since the 1930s, most local educators and administrators haven’t been schooled in them. Lacking training in how to understand, identify or address dyslexia in the classroom, educators are frequently baffled by their dyslexic students who are obviously bright but don’t perform up to expectations. They won’t realize that the difficulties experienced by four or five struggling students in every class, year after year are likely due to unidentified dyslexia. By the time those kids are in their teens, they will be blamed for their reading struggles and lack of academic skills.
My son, a 2015 graduate of Santa Barbara High School, was one of those kids — the one in five with dyslexia. He couldn’t read until 7th grade, and then only because I became one of “those parents,” the bothersome ones who refuse to settle for educational inaction. I wrote about that journey in these pages back in 2010, in a cover story called “When Reading Hurts.” Since then I have dedicated my professional life to raising community awareness about dyslexia, advocating for children, helping other parents, and even working as a dyslexia consultant with the school district. We made some real progress on a number of fronts with the previous school administration, and I wrote and spoke about it often.
But times have changed.
Addressing dyslexia in Santa Barbara Unified now consists of a pilot reading program for a handful of students at Harding School. School supporters are soliciting donations from community members and philanthropic groups to expand the program incrementally. Since dyslexia affects 20 percent of the population, and there are some 15,000 in the district, that adds up to something like 3,000 dyslexic students in need of identification, intervention and remediation.
Teaching dyslexic students in the way they learn is not an option, some kind of extra benefit or a discretionary novelty; it is mandated by Federal law that assures a “Free Appropriate Public Education.” Somehow Santa Barbara has gotten away with skirting the law for decades; maybe it’s because parents have never witnessed best practices in our dyslexia desert.
But we can learn a great deal from other places, and begin to insist their approaches be implemented locally. Here are some of the dyslexia oases where dyslexic students experience less stress and more success:
Public Schools: Several progressive school districts across the country have designated a single school campus to meet the needs of dyslexic students. One is the GRASP Academy in Jacksonville, Florida https://dcps.duvalschools.org/grasp. (Note: This was suggested as a better approach than closing Open Alternative School, and after initial consideration, rejected by district leadership.)
Sometimes a formal complaint can lead to constructive, district-wide changes, such as in Upper Arlington, Ohio. Excellent private school options for dyslexic students led to the implementation of exemplary public school dyslexia services in Fairfax County, VA. (Note: After much research, one family living in that district recently decided not to move to Santa Barbara because their dyslexic child would receive such inferior services here.) Even enlightened school boards can make a difference, as in Los Angeles Unified, when trustees responded to parent requests and directed their superintendent to develop a comprehensive dyslexia plan within 60 calendar days.
Community Institutions: In many places, established non-profits offer a sliding scale for remedial services, like Learn2ReadOC. Several universities have established dyslexia centers with outreach to the community, like University of California, San Francisco, home of renowned dyslexia researcher Dr. Fumiko Hoeft. Numerous hospitals across the country maintain assessment and reading centers in their approach to public health. Kaiser Permanente’s Watts Counseling and Learning Center has been at it for 50 years.
Resources for Parents: There’s a network of established government-funded Parent Training and Information Centers, but the one serving Santa Barbara is located in faraway Fresno . In 2017, one of these centers, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) filed a class-action suit in U.S. District Court against Berkeley Unified School District on behalf of underserved dyslexic students.
For decades, informed community members have advocated for improved educational opportunities for students with dyslexia, but have been met by steadfast resistance. Instead of making the institutional changes that would address the needs of all dyslexic students, district officials deal with them one case at a time. When parents advocate successfully, the district may eventually offer to pay for expensive, private remedial services. These legal settlements are negotiated behind closed doors and quietly approved by the school board. They typically stipulate no blame and require nondisclosure agreements.
Those without the means to obtain these private services become acceptable losses. They struggle unnecessarily and too many get into serious trouble along the way. Eventually, they leave school without developing skills in reading, writing, and spelling, resulting in lost potential and low self-esteem for individuals and negative effects on the overall health of the community.
It’s a very high price to pay to live in Paradise.
We know better, and have several examples of those who do better. It’s time we do, too.
Cheri Rae is director of Dyslexia Santa Barbara, and the author of DyslexiaLand: A Field Guide for Parents of Children with Dyslexia. She offers advocacy services for parents; contact her at DyslexiaSB@gmail.com.