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Lawmakers approve bill asking schools to do more on dyslexia

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Arizona is on the verge of requiring schools to do more to identify students with dyslexia and giving them guidelines for how to deal with them.

The Senate on Monday gave final unanimous approval to legislation allowing the state Board of Education to create a handbook for schools. That already appears to be accomplished, with Rep. Jill Norgaard, R-Phoenix, telling board members earlier in the day that one has been prepared and is ready for adoption.

But the potentially more significant part of HB2202, which now goes to the governor, is redefining dyslexia in a way Norgaard said more accurately reflects the condition. She said that, by itself, should help students get identified earlier and get them the help they need before they fall behind.

Norgaard said Arizona will be the 15th state in the nation to create such a handbook.

What makes that all the more remarkable, she said, is until the October 2015 federal education letter to schools, “you weren’t even able to mention the D-word in schools,” she said.

Whether that was a specific prohibition is less clear.

That 2015 letter to schools from the U.S. Department of Education said schools are “reluctant to reference or use dyslexia” in evaluating students or developing individualized education programs. Assistant Education Secretary Michael Yudin said he wanted to “clarify” that’s not the case.

Whatever the situation, Norgaard said it freed parents, educators and other volunteers to start working to ensure that schools were finding dyslexic students and providing needed help.

The problem, she explained, is that students who have problems in word recognition and decoding are often simply considered to be slow readers, especially when there is no other disability found.

“Dyslexia students are typically very bright,” Norgaard said, adding they memorize a lot of things, starting as early as age three.

It isn’t until they get into second and third grade where there’s a noticeable drop in reading comprehension, especially when problems are presented in story form.

“It’s been identified that 17 percent of students have some form of dyslexia,” she said.

Part of the problem, Norgaard said, is students sometimes get identified as disabled and are put into programs where they have individualized education plans or put into special education programs. She said the change in law, coupled with the handbook, will lead to “focused intervention,” which eventually will put the student “back into the mainstream.”

And there’s a financial benefit to the state, said Norgaard.

“If you start spending money more on early intervention, you’re not going to see kids fall off in third and fourth grade where they hate school (and) they don’t want to go to school any more,” she said. Norgaard said what’s in the handbook follows successful models in other states.

Education board members getting updated on the handbook and Norgaard’s legislation got the benefit of hearing from Charlie LeVinus, a fourth grader who has been diagnosed with dyslexia.

LeVinus explained how he scored in the 96th percentile or higher among all students in a first-grade test in math, reading and other skills.

“Because we were in first grade, it was read to us in class,” he told board members. “However, I knew I was still having reading problems. I was afraid of being called on in class.”

It took efforts by two specialists to get the diagnosis of double deficit dyslexia. LeVinus attended a summer program spanning five days a week, seven hours a day for six weeks to “reprogram” his brain.

The result, LeVinus said, is he now reads above grade level.

Bernadette Coggins, a governing board member in the Kyrene School District, said the guidelines are important.

“It’s a starting point for schools, where they have to start identifying students so I don’t have to go in and say, ‘I think my kid’s dyslexic,’ and have them say, ‘No, he’s ADHD’ or some other diagnosis,” she said. “At the same time we’re going to provide some resources and tools for school districts to tap into.”

Coggins said she knows from personal experience with her son, Zane, that, until now, schools have had no tools to identify students with dyslexia or even know what to do with them.

“We knew in about third grade that something wasn’t right,” Coggins said, with his skills two years behind grade level.

She said her district provided “every intervention we have.” But nothing the district did was able to figure out what was wrong.

It was only after taking action on her own, Coggins said, that she got a diagnosis. She said, though, that there needs to be something built in to the education system to find those students before it’s too late.

“What we’ve noticed with dyslexia is if kids aren’t diagnosed and given the right tools, then they go on into middle school and high school,” Coggins said. She said they have a high drop-out rate and believes they are more likely to end up in prison.

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