Years Of Pain, New Legislation, LCPS Finally Acting

For years, Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) has provided reading specialists for students in need. Yet when it comes to students with certain learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and dysgraphia, general reading programs are not effective. Starting this school year, in a move that many parents feel is long overdue, LCPS is providing dyslexia specialists to help these students learn to read and write.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is a specific learning disability characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. People with dyslexia may experience problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience.

Sterling resident Nancy Walker de Llanas noticed something was not right with her first-grade daughter. Broadlands resident Erin Poe also saw something wrong in her elementary school child. For Leesburg resident Carrie Bodoh and South Riding resident Melinda Mansfield, the signs with their children manifested in preschool and kindergarten.

All of these women expressed concern to LCPS about their children falling behind in reading and writing, but all were repeatedly told that their children were fine.

It took Walker de Llanas several years to get the school system to test her daughter.

Initially, her daughter’s teachers wrote her off as lazy or a slow worker, but after Walker de Llanas continued to insist that her daughter needed help, she was able to speak with a school psychologist. Her daughter was in fourth grade at that point, yet the psychologist told Walker de Llanas to hold off on testing because the longer she waited, the larger the discrepancy would be, which would increase the likelihood of her daughter qualifying for special education services.

“But I’m like, why would you wait for her to fail? And that’s basically what they do,” Walker de Llanas said.

When her daughter was entering fifth grade and her son was entering fourth, Walker de Llanas came across some information about dyslexia and realized the description fit both her children. She took them to a private dyslexia specialist, who diagnosed both children with dyslexia.

“My daughter’s severely to moderately dyslexic, and she’s gotten by through memorizing a lot of words. And you’d see her writing that she would know the letters but not the order they would go in. It was pure memorization. You can only use that to a certain point when it starts to fail. It’s just impossible,” Walker de Llanas said.

Still, even with the diagnosis, teachers continued to tell Walker de Llanas that her daughter was fine—just slow.

“They would say she’s a very lovely girl, the teachers like her, and she’s very nice. And I’d say, ‘yeah, she’s a very nice kid, teachers like her, that’s wonderful, but I want her to be able to read,’” Walker de Llanas said. “I had my daughter’s second-grade teacher tell me my daughter is very nice, very kind to others, but she is not that smart. She didn’t say it that directly, but that’s basically what she was telling me—that my daughter wasn’t that smart and that I shouldn’t push for Einstein. And I’m not pushing for Einstein; I’m pushing for her to be able to read.”

Poe also had to go to an outside source to have her son tested after he went years not passing his reading-level developmental reading assessment (DRA). He was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia — a similar learning disability related to the ability to write.

“When I had him tested for his [Individualized Education Program (IEP)] through the county, they basically came back and told me that he’s fine and that the F’s he started bringing home in school this year, in fifth grade, should actually have their own natural consequences and that he was doing fine,” Poe said.

In other words, Poe’s son should be punished for receiving F’s.

When Mansfield’s son entered second grade, he was behind on reading and had difficulty writing and doing basic math because of undiagnosed dyslexia and dysgraphia.

School administrators told Mansfield her son might be eligible for special education based on his ADHD. However, she said his second-grade teacher stuck to her guns and insisted her son had a specialized learning disability, not just ADHD. Still, communication with LCPS administrators went nowhere, and Mansfield ultimately took her son to have him independently tested, where he was diagnosed with both dyslexia and dysgraphia.

Mansfield had enough and was driven to hire an attorney.

“It was like three against three, which is not the way an IEP meeting is supposed to go,” Mansfield said. “That’s when I had to get an attorney and figure out what to do because I was brand new and I didn’t know what to do.”

Mansfield also found that her son’s accommodations were substandard from assistive technology and text-to-speech functions but several of his teachers simply did not want to abide by the recommended IEP.  Entering middle school, he was smart enough for honors classes, but teachers did not want to abide by his IEP, she said.

The Wilson Reading Program for dyslexic students was attempted but it was nearly a punishment.

“They didn’t have a Wilson’s teacher, and not only did they not have a Wilson’s teacher, they had scheduled a teacher’s assistant to teach the Wilson’s Program in a closet and it was a book storage closet. There’s no window on the door. The books were from the floor to the ceiling, and the shelves were bending from the weight of the books. In one class, they did it with all of the kids that needed remediation; there was a family of spiders that came out. There was no ventilation and there was no white board — there was no nothing,” Mansfield said. “And then a couple doors down, you have the gifted and talented with their own teacher and their own curriculum and Promethean board and the rest of that.”

Mansfield finally withdrew her children from LCPS last winter because she felt her children’s needs were not being met and has now enrolled them at the Fusion Academy. Walker de Llanas and Bodoh have both taken to tutoring their dyslexic children, taking on hours of extra work.

Unlike other parents’ experiences, Bodoh’s son’s kindergarten teacher recognized something was wrong and asked to get him tested. Testing is initially done by the school. In the meantime, he repeated kindergarten with little change in his ability.

“So it took six to nine months to get this initial testing done, and they come up with he probably does need an IEP because he is behind but there was no dyslexia diagnosis or anything. So we weren’t really sure what was going on,” Bodoh said.

After Bodoh’s son was found eligible for an IEP, she had him independently tested between second and third grades, which is when he was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia.

“His first-grade teacher used to call him her ‘little enigma’ because she was a very good teacher, but she didn’t know what to do with him,” Bodoh said. “He did everything you wanted him to do, he tried his hardest at everything, he was one of those good kids. They all loved him, but he just struggled when it came to reading and writing and all those kinds of things and expressing himself.”

However, even once these children were diagnosed and granted IEP, they still struggled and fell behind. Parents, not understanding how dyslexic people learn differently, trusted LCPS to be the experts.

“To be honest, I couldn’t really understand one program versus another. I just assumed that the school system knew what it was doing because their job is to teach our children to read and write. That’s their primary job,” Bodoh said. “I didn’t understand that until we got to ninth grade and we’re meeting with the counselor and [my son is] in a self-contained English class and I said, okay, they’re going through the curriculum in the English class and he’s in a special class for kids who struggle to read, but they’re not teaching him to read in that class. Who’s going to teach him to read? How are we going to teach him read? And at that point they said, ‘oh, well we don’t have anybody that can help you.’”

In Walker de Llanas’ case, her daughter entered middle school, but testing showed she was still reading at a fourth-grade level, meaning she was almost two years behind. Her daughter’s vocabulary was also at a fourth-grade level. When Walker de Llanas brought this up to her daughter’s school, they blamed the low scores on the test being flawed.

“They always have an excuse,” Walker de Llanas said.

Walker de Llanas had more outside testing done, which she said the school system was supposed to pay for, but did not. The testing once again confirmed her daughter has dyslexia and has problems decoding words. To Walker de Llanas’ frustration, the school still did not find her daughter eligible for an IEP.

She fought for accommodations for her daughter and was told her daughter would be given more time to read, which Walker de Llanas noted did not tackle the root problem.

“Giving time and a half to read something isn’t going to help if you can’t decode the words. She can read this for three hours and not be able to understand what she’s reading,” she said.

All four mothers said, for students with dyslexia to be properly served, teachers have to have the correct training and qualifications. Many reading specialists have not been educated in how to remediate dyslexic readers, and students with dyslexia must receive consistent remediation, which cannot happen when services vary from teacher to teacher.

“I feel like nothing they do is geared for remediating a dyslexic child. None of the teachers — they don’t train the teachers in the science of reading at a lot of the colleges, so a lot of the teachers don’t know,” Walker de Llanas said. “As a parent, it’s extremely frustrating.”

New legislation and LCPS’ answer to the problem

LCPS has answered these concerns by creating a state-mandated dyslexia specialist position and also implementing training system-wide. LCPS Public Information Officer Wayde Byard said LCPS is providing training to administrators and central office staff, who will support, observe, and provide feedback to staff.

In addition, specialized instructional facilitators will be working with schools to provide coaching and modeling and to ensure that programs targeting dyslexia remediation are followed to fidelity.

Another change that will benefit students with dyslexia is that teachers are now required to demonstrate awareness and understanding of dyslexia as a certification requirement under the Virginia Department of Education, Byard said.

Byard also said many teachers have already completed specialized reading training and have been implementing specialized reading in schools. The training programs try to catch struggling readers, not necessarily just those with a dyslexia diagnosis, he said.

Parents underscored the importance of early detection, awareness, and training as the keys to help students with dyslexia be successful. Poe said her son had two teachers in his elementary school career who knew how to support the way he learned because they did their own research.

Parents also need to be made aware of the signs of dyslexia. Broadened dyslexia awareness has become a goal of LCPS and the Special Education Advisory Committee.

“I’m an educator. It’s hard for me,” Walker de Llanas said. “What about parents who know nothing about education? What about parents [for whom] English is their second language? Or parents who aren’t well educated? They don’t know what to do for their kids. They just think their kid is lazy.”

Although some parents feel it is too late for their child to get the help they need, others are hopeful that LCPS’ recent actions are the first steps down the right path. Ultimately, they believe the education system country-wide has to start training all teachers how to identify and remediate students from dyslexia as part of the college curriculum in order to see the changes needed to help this population — many of whom experience depression and anxiety from the pressure they face in trying to get around their disability and succeed.

“If we support these kids when they’re young and they do learn to read, then they’re able to take advantage of the advantages that a dyslexic brain gives you — that entrepreneurial, out-of-the-box thinking,” Bodoh said. “Some of your greatest minds were dyslexic and it’s a gift if you have the support in place. If you don’t have the supports in place, it’s nothing but a curse.”