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Dyslexia Pilot Program’s Early Intervention a Success

Director of Elementary Education to Present Results at Tuesday School Board Meeting

Sierra Loughridge. | Credit: Paul Wellman

The Santa Barbara Unified School District has been under fire in recent months for students’ low math and reading scores, but Tuesday night, it will roll out some long-overdue positive news: the results of its dyslexia pilot program. The program, which is largely successful by its early-intervention tool, produced significant improvement in kids’ reading abilities across the board.

“Dyslexia is incredibly complex; it comes in different forms and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Sierra Loughridge, director of elementary education at the district. Loughridge will present the results of the pilot program to the school board and the public on Tuesday, October 22. “But what we have found is that early intervention is the key to success with any type.” 

Early intervention is aligned with the California Department of Education’s Dyslexia Guidelines, a framework that serves as a recommendation the district is not legally mandated to adopt. Students struggling with reading are given the Basic Phonetic Skills Test III at the beginning of 1st grade, and then those students with the lowest scores are given three additional tests, all administered by trained literacy specialists. 

The literacy specialists use the tests to identify the students who are reading significantly below grade level and who are exhibiting “low phonemic awareness, difficulty blending sounds, letter reversals, and blending right to left,” in conjunction with observations from the student’s primary classroom teacher. 

As a result, the struggling students are put into groups of three or fewer with students who share similar reading struggles, sometimes across grade levels, and meet for 45 minutes per day, four days per week. The students do not have to be formally diagnosed with dyslexia to qualify for the intervention.

“The reading intervention groups are highly structured and engage students with multisensory approaches,” Loughridge explained. She said the groups use the VAKT (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile) learning styles. “Kids learn to read by breaking up word sounds with hand movements, for example, or they spell out words in sand as they verbally recite them.”

The pilot program has been an overall success with the elementary kids. On the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement, students showed “significant increase” in scores across all four categories — Letter and Word Recognition, Nonsense Word Decoding, Silent Reading Fluency, and Word Recognition Fluency. 

In the last category, for example, the average score among students was 10.34 to begin with and 33.20 after having gone through the intervention group (out of a 0-100 score range.) The other two administered tests had nearly identical results: all “significant improvement” or “improvement” across the elementary schools. See the full score breakdown and presentation here. 

“The narrative has been that the district hasn’t done anything to help the struggling kids,” Loughridge said. “That just isn’t true. We have doubled our capacity to hold intervention classes this year after training more facilitators in August. … The state didn’t even list dyslexia as a special education requirement until 2015, so we are actually pretty on target.”

The ultimate goal, Loughridge said, is to get dyslexic kids out of special education classes. If they can get an intervention at an early age, they might be able to catch up to their grade-level peers and skip special ed classes altogether. 

The program began at Harding Elementary School in 2017 and was so successful it branched out to include Monroe and McKinley elementary schools, Santa Barbara Junior High, and Santa Barbara High School. There are currently about 120 in the elementary programs and 66 kids in the high school and junior high program. 

The junior high and high school programs haven’t been as successful as the elementary, but Loughridge said that is to be expected because it can take older students up to four times as long to catch up to their peers as it does for their elementary counterparts — hence the need for early intervention. 

The older intervention students use an educational software called MindPlay, which is more age-appropriate than the ones used for elementary students. The older students still show improvements, just in smaller increments, and in some cases, they showed “statistically insignificant declines” in scores.

The expansion was designed by Dr. Jarice Butterfield and literacy specialist Claire Krock, who also trained the other literacy specialists who administer the tests and facilitate the intervention groups. The board will evaluate the literacy intervention project Tuesday and decide whether or not the recent expansion is as prosperous as Loughridge presents.

“I think when the board sees the presentation tomorrow night, they will see the success we’ve had and they will want to expand it to more schools,” Loughridge said. “The goal for this year is to keep up the success so we can roll this model out to the rest of them.”

Cheri Rae, one of Santa Barbara’s most prominent dyslexia activists, has long argued that the district doesn’t do enough to help its dyslexic students. She explained that there are two types of models for literacy — balanced literacy and structured literacy. Balanced literacy uses leveled, grade-specific books, while structured literacy uses phonics and breaks down words into roots with suffixes and prefixes, which is helpful for dyslexic students. 

Photo: Paul WellmanCherri Rae at her home in Santa Barbara Nov. 6, 2018.

“I have a 1972 Life magazine about the literacy models, and it is still true today,” Rae said. “The info has been out there for decades and nothing is being done still. … This isn’t rocket science; the research is proven to work.”

Although the district uses balanced literacy for instruction as a whole, the new intervention groups use the structured literacy model that Rae has long advocated for. However, Rae still believes that the entire school system should use structured literacy as the standard because “all kids can learn to read with structured literacy, but only non-dyslexics can learn to read with the balanced model.”

“Rather than have a separate program, the district needs to just train teachers in structured literacy,” she said. “Every teacher needs their own toolbox of structured literacy methods so they can alter their teaching style to the student.” Rae published a book called DyslexiaLand, which cites one in five children as having dyslexia. “At least 3,000 kids in the district have [dyslexia], and at least half the 15,000 are not reading at grade level,” she said. “All teachers should know how to work with structured literacy.”

Rae also is very focused on the social-emotional effects on students with dyslexia. She said there is a significant emotional component to it because when kids struggle to read, they feel like a failure or stupid compared to classmates. She said as the kids get older, they are blamed for their inability to read and start to have major self-esteem issues.

She cited examples of kids she has worked with, like a 20-year-old with dyslexia whom she described as “incredibly bright,” but he still could not read. The young man delivers food and hopes to be able to read well enough to attend SBCC one day. He would need to read at at least an 8th-grade level to attend the community college.

“The system failed him,” Rae said. “He came to me practically begging to learn how to read. … Santa Barbara is the third-highest county for poverty. If these kids can’t learn to read, they will never get out of poverty.” She has proposed that the district have roundtables with the struggling kids and ask them what it’s like to read in order to better understand the social-emotional effects.

“When a little girl tells you that one school year feels like three, it’s time to listen,” Rae said.

Loughridge said that although there is a section of the intervention group report that will address the emotional effects, she will not have time to address it out loud in her presentation on Tuesday. 

The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, October 22, at the Marjorie Luke Theatre at Santa Barbara Junior High School, 721 East Cota Street.

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