Literacy teaching methods failing some students

Darien’s literacy program works for most students, but there is growing concern that the program is failing some of them, and that teachers lack the tools to get them back on track.

John Verre, the special education ombudsman, reported to the Board of Education’s special education subcommittee that he’s been working with two third graders who are not functional readers. These students have been getting special education services for three or four years, he said, which by now should have been enough intervention to enable them to read.

“The teams, appropriately, with good evaluation, have identified that and determined we need to change the way we’re teaching them to read,” Verre told the committee.

Dyslexia and reading

Connecticut has some of the best reading legislation in the country, according to Margie Gillis, project director at the Haskins Literacy Initiative at Yale University.

“What we haven’t done so well, is we haven’t enforced it,” Gillis told The Darien Times. “There’s no accountability… There has to be accountability otherwise people aren’t going to do the right thing. Part of the problem is people don’t know the right thing, or they’re trying to save money.”

Money-saving measures during the 2012-13 school year led to findings that the district broke federal special education law and also led to the resignations of the superintendent and two top special education administrators.

One of Verre’s responsibilities has been to identify what he considers to be systemic problems within the special education program.

“I think reading, as a disability, is one of the areas that is a systemic issue,” he said.

Many children who fall behind in reading have dyslexia, which is a neurological condition that makes it difficult to pull apart the sounds of words, which means learning to read and learning a foreign language can be difficult. It is not an intellectual disability.

Additionally, an increasing amount of evidence shows that the dyslexic brain has distinct advantages that enable it to perceive the world differently. In Connecticut, dyslexia is not a defined disability. Instead, children can receive services under the “learning disabled” category, or LD. More children receive special education services under LD than any other category, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Children who are gifted and yet learning disabled are often called twice-exceptional students, and school districts have struggled to teach many of these children throughout history. Albert Einstein is an example.

Einstein mastered visual and spatial reasoning and problem-solving, but he was a notoriously difficult student who acted out in class, was a poor speller and often had failing grades. Thomas Edison is another example of a twice exceptional student.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, has been actively lobbying Congress to create a law that defines dyslexia and indicates how various treatments compare to each other.

“The gap isn’t between our knowledge and needing to have more knowledge,” Shaywitz said. “The gap is having the knowledge and acting on it. We’re not acting on it.”

Legislators have been listening. In 2012, the House of Representatives created the Bipartisan Congressional Dyslexia Caucus to educate other congressmen and advance policies “that break down barriers faced by dyslexics.”

Many school districts fail to understand dyslexia and all its intricacies, Shaywitz said.

Verre has now confirmed what some parents have been saying for several years, that Darien’s special education reading program needs improvement.

Parent Kit Savage pointed to a flawed reading curriculum that doesn’t focus enough time on phonics, which is the study of the sounds of letters and various combinations. The Orton-Gillingham and Lindamood-Bell methods are phonics-based teaching tools used by many public and private schools and can be applied with little financial investment, proponents say.

SRBI and reading

When children fall behind in class, they are often given extra help in the form of SRBI. This intervention program involves more one-on-one instruction, yet Darien’s SRBI program was found to be riddled with problems during the 2012-13 school year.

Attorney Sue Gamm found that both staff and parents were not clear about SRBI procedures, and that the district had no SRBI manual. Darien did not follow state guidelines for best practices in implementing SRBI, and had no data to show if SRBI was working. Gamm found that SRBI might have been used to delay providing services to children with disabilities. This delay can lead to behavior problems for some children, who act out as they fall behind, experts say. This can then affect the education of all children in the classroom, as the behavior problems can be disruptive.

A draft manual was created in 2010 by Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent of elementary education. Gamm was not given this manual, but found it while performing a Google search during her investigation.

Earlier this year, the person who oversaw Darien’s SRBI program, Antoinette Fornshell, resigned to take a higher-paying position with Greenwich Public Schools. Currently, the state does not have a contact person for Darien for the position of SRBI coordinator.

Others who have been involved with SRBI include former director Deirdre Osypuk, assistant superintendent Pandolfo, and Liz Wesolowski, the former assistant director of elementary special education. Many parents have cited all three women as part of the problem with SRBI and special education. Osypuk and Wesolowski resigned, yet Pandolfo remains in her position.

Verre recommended setting up a working group to help the district find and develop the necessary tools to ensure all children are learning to read appropriately.

The special education subcommittee also discussed whether placement teams were still writing “as needed” on children’s education plans. Carleen Wood, assistant director of special education, told the committee that teachers have been informed to not write that phrase in education plans, or IEPs.

Verre said services can be provided “as needed,” but that it should not be written on the IEP. This plan is supposed to have time-sensitive goals and cannot have ambiguous phrases. However, the effectiveness of some kinds of assistance cannot be measured. Verre suggested that it was fine to do more than what is on an IEP, such as providing certain immeasurable services, as long as the service doesn’t impede the implementation of the IEP.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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