By Melissa B. Taboada – American-Statesman Staff
A multiyear effort to identify dyslexic students and better provide them with tools to learn has led to nearly five times as many students receiving dyslexia intervention services in Austin schools, and 80 evaluators with specialized training to help them.
In the fall, the school district will go a step further as it launches its first specialty project to serve dyslexic students at Covington Middle School in South Austin.
Until recently, Austin had identified far too few students as dyslexic – about 3 percent compared with the national estimates of 10 to 20 percent — leaving many without help, a common shortcoming among Texas school districts. But now Austin is touted by the state as an example other districts can look to in meeting the needs of students with dyslexia, a neurologically based reading disorder with a name that literally means “difficulty with words.”
The district in 2016-17 had nearly 8,600 students receiving intervention services for dyslexia, nearly five times as many as six years ago.
“We were missing a lot of kids,” said Rachel Robillard, a neuropsychologist who heads the district’s dyslexia department. She said the district now uses psychologists and specialists in identifying students. “We now have a better process and better training to improve the identification piece and the training.”
Those with dyslexia have difficulty with language skills, including recognizing word patterns, basic sounds of speech, reading, spelling and writing. Dyslexia can be mild or acute, and students with it often are misidentified as having behavioral problems or other learning challenges.
When Robillard came to the district in 2013, the district had only three certified academic language therapists, educators who have had a two-year multisensory, structured language training that meets international standards. Now the number of trained evaluators in the district stands at 81.
The district, which had been screening students in third grade, when reading proficiency is expected, started sooner, in kindergarten through second grades, when early reading begins.
Teachers also were trained for what to look for in struggling students, and over the past three years, 96 percent of the students referred to a specialist for identification indeed had the disorder.
The next step is the pilot program at Covington.
The district, which has about 1,000 middle school students identified with dyslexia, is targeting those grade levels because some students still don’t get the support they need in earlier grades, aren’t identified until they are leaving elementary school, or are so severely dyslexic they need continued intensive support, Robillard said.
Austin already has at least one highly trained dyslexia support specialist at every elementary school, so district leaders wanted to grow that expertise to the middle school level. After examining data on the number of students with dyslexia and their corresponding support services, “we knew we could do much more to support them,” said Edmund Oropez, the district’s chief officer of teaching and learning.
Oropez added that the new pilot program for dyslexia “will offer something unique that no other public schools in the area offer.”
District leaders chose Covington because it has space for the program to grow, enough students with dyslexia to assess how well the pilot project works and the campus administration showed interest and a strong support of the district’s dyslexia program.
The middle school project will serve a range of students, from those with the most severe dyslexia to others who need additional support but not intensive intervention. The students with the most severe dyslexia will be enrolled in an elective, with a student-teacher ratio of 6 to 1, that focuses on an intensive academic language therapy geared to help them read. Other students in the program will take a different elective intervention course that provides additional support but isn’t as intensive. All students in the pilot program also will be taught and supported in their core classes by teachers who this summer received 40 hours of training in dyslexia strategies, including a multisensory approach to helping the students read.
The project will cost $112,000 for the first group of 25 sixth-graders. Nearly half the cost will pay the salary of the school’s new academic language therapist, who will serve as an instructor, support the reading specialists, coach the core subject teachers and supervise the program. The program costs also include laptops for each child.
The program will grow, adding a grade level annually, with up to 120 students in the next three years at Covington, and will expand into other campuses until it is at all middle schools in the district.
The district is collaborating on the program’s design and training for staff with the Dyslexia Center of Austin, the University of Texas College of Education’s curriculum and instruction department and the Meadows Foundation.
Kelly O’Mullan, co-founder of the Dyslexia Center of Austin, said she has been impressed with the district’s efforts at all levels to identify students with dyslexia and train teachers to reach them.
“AISD has been really aggressive and at the forefront in training their teachers to the level of a therapist,” O’Mullan said.
“There is recognition that these kids learn differently,” said O’Mullan, who said students with dyslexia are all so unique that there isn’t a single profile for a child with dyslexia — it takes a little “detective work.”
“Once they’re identified with dyslexia, we know exactly how to address their needs,” she said.
Austin school Trustee Amber Elenz, who has championed the improvement of the district’s dyslexia services, said, “It’s time that they really put thought and resources into this work. There’s so much potential to make great strides with these kids, so I’m excited they’re putting attention there.”