Last week, the State Board of Education approved changes to the AAC that delineate dyslexia as a learning challenge. Previously, children with dyslexia could only be served when conditions rose…and achievement fell…to the level where schools would provide supports through special education.
By codifying the need to identify students early and requiring school officials to provide resources for students with dyslexia, they removed any excuse school officials might present to not properly identify and serve children struggling with dyslexia.
This is quite a victory for the group of advocates who worked tirelessly to make it happen.
— Mary Scott Hunter (@MaryScottHunter) October 8, 2015
And it’s quite a victory for the 10% to 20%, or 75,000 to 150,000 of children in Alabama who are impacted by dyslexia.
While some may see this as a quick victory for dyslexia advocates, nothing could be farther from the truth.
A Long Journey
A Google search uncovered a trace of the beginning of this journey, chronicled by Challen Stephens of al.com in 2005.
Ten years ago, parents and advocates were clearly frustrated, evidenced by the stories they shared with Stephens. They shared stories of beating their heads against the wall, of school officials reluctant to identify students with dyslexia, and of those same officials waiting too long to do what little they did do.
October was first proclaimed as Dyslexia Awareness Month by Governor Bob Riley in 2005, and it has been proclaimed so every October since.
Dr. Denise Gibbs, Director of the Alabama Scottish Rite Learning Centers since 2001, recalls getting that first proclamation from the Governor. Gibbs was recruited to become the Scottish Rite’s director after spending years as the director of the Scottish Rite Clinic for Childhood Language Disorders at the University of Montevallo.
Through the Learning Centers, Gibbs trains teachers across Alabama how to help struggling readers. She estimates she has trained more than 20,000 Alabama teachers in 120 school districts since 2001.
Many articles have been written since 2005…all asking why state education officials refused to take state-level action for students struggling with dyslexia.
Other states passed laws. Alabama didn’t.
Dyslexia advocates traveled to many of State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice’s stops across Alabama on the 2014 Future of Public Education Tour, and stepped to the microphone to ask why dyslexia wasn’t recognized as a disability in Alabama and why schools weren’t providing services.
Here’s Bice’s response in this video from the tour. He was clearly frustrated by the implication that schools weren’t recognizing and helping students with dyslexia and asked for folks to contact him personally if they were having trouble with their child’s school.
In January, dyslexia advocates got together and decided there were two paths they could travel to get help for children with dyslexia: the state board of education or the state legislature.
They chose both paths. Whatever it took, they would get it done.
A lot went on behind the scenes, according to Ramona Rice, a founding member of Decoding Dyslexia Alabama, a support and advocacy group for parents of children with dyslexia.
Rice started a petition on MoveOn.org in January 2013 when her group first formed, calling for the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) and local policymakers to address the struggles parents face in securing appropriate reading interventions for their children with dyslexia in Alabama public schools. The petition is still active and currently has nearly 1,300 signatures.
“It had to change,” Rice said. “Whatever it took, it couldn’t keep going on this way,” with children failing and falling through the cracks, she added.
Gibbs described what she calls a behavioral response that children who struggle with dyslexia develop. “They say, ‘I’m not a school kid’,” she said. Many end up dropping out of school because the struggle is too hard.
Both Rice and Gibbs stressed the importance of intervening early, before a child develops that behavioral response and gives up on doing well in school.
At the state board’s March work session, Bice presented a draft resolution to the board, stating he wanted to put dyslexia into the AAC and appoint an advisory council. Board members agreed students needed to be identified early to put interventions into place.
Senator Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery), Chair of the Senate’s Education committee, introduced a dyslexia law at the end of March to require identification, recognition and supports for children with dyslexia.
Rice and other advocates pushed for the bill while still traversing both paths. Whatever way would be the quickest was what they were seeking, Rice said.
The bill never made it out of committee, likely due to the ALSDE’s concurrent work.
In early April, the state board adopted the resolution officially recognizing dyslexia as a learning challenge, agreeing to appoint a Dyslexia Advisory Council and resolving to revise the AAC to specifically address dyslexia.
By the time the May meeting arrived, work had begun on revising the AAC, and the Dyslexia Advisory Council (names on page 67) was appointed. Gibbs and Rice are among the 27 who serve on the Council. Twelve Council members are parents of children with dyslexia.
Work on a resource guide began, with various sections doled out to various members of the Council who were most knowledgeable about a particular area.
Various versions of AAC changes appeared on the state board’s work session and meeting agenda a couple of times, but were pulled at the last minute, causing some advocates to worry that the work they’d done was going nowhere.
They unknowingly hit a snag with the School Superintendents of Alabama, according to Judy Stone, the ALSDE’s Alabama Reading Initiative Coordinator. Superintendents expressed concern about the cost of training and the cost of supports.
Advocates were visible all along the way, always wearing red, always taking the time to talk with state board members after meetings and work sessions.
Gibbs credits champions within the ALSDE, including Assistant Superintendent Sherrill Parris, Bice, and Stone, for pushing it into the final stage.
Gibbs added that board member Stephanie Bell stood by advocates throughout the process, and that “her steadying influence played a very large role in our unity and certainly in our success.”
Final proposed changes finally made it to the board table at September’s work session. “We’re glad to be on the agenda,” Parris said.
The School Superintendents of Alabama had agreed to the revisions.
One month later, when the day for the vote came, there was a sea of red in the audience. Children, parents, and members of the Scottish Rite were there. Gibbs and Rice were, too, of course.
Approval of the final version of the AAC changes was met with loud applause.
A few minutes later, the board proclaimed October at Dyslexia Awareness Month.
After the proclamation, board member Ella Bell said to the audience, “It’s just so great having it come to fruition. Clap if you think it’s great.”
The audience not only clapped but rose to their feet in a standing ovation, captured by board member Mary Scott Hunter in the tweet above.
Then all gathered for a picture, which you can find on Decoding Dyslexia Alabama’s Facebook page.
And now the real work begins, according to Rice.
What This Means for Students and Teachers
The Dyslexia Resource Guide was developed to help teachers, students, and parents. It is located within the Alabama Reading Initiative’s section on the ALSDE web site.
The online version is full of links to further resources for teachers, parents and students.
It sets forth a Dyslexia Services Plan which will “address dyslexia-related learning challenges or difficulties before the child develops a need for special education services.”
Components of the plan include:
- Screening for students in grades K-12,
- Assistive Technology, and
Where training for teachers is concerned, the guide states that all educators will be expected to participate in “ongoing and embedded” professional development to instruct them how to provide services to students with dyslexia.
When questions about whether a student is eligible for special education services are raised, the guide is careful to note that screenings and interventions for dyslexia should not delay or otherwise interfere with determining if a student is eligible for special education:
It is possible for a student to participate in dyslexia services including dyslexia-specific intervention while a special education evaluation is being completed.
At September’s board work session, Stone said the ALSDE is making specialized training available to groups of teachers across Alabama. The gold standard training, called Multisensory Structured Language Education (MSLE), was made available to 50 teachers in June. It costs $225,000 to train 50 teachers over a two-year period.
Regarding the concerns expressed by superintendents, Stone told the board, “Once the [Dyslexia Resources] Guide gets distributed to the districts, they’ll realize it’s not going to be a tremendous expense to them because this Department is absorbing a lot of the costs”.
Stone acknowledged that with 45,000 teachers in Alabama, training 50 at a time would be painstakingly slow progress, but said there are other interventions and training that are much less expensive that teachers will find in the Guide. She also said that it is likely that every school in Alabama may not need an MSLE-trained specialist.
Stone said that because the dyslexia intervention itself is only 45 minutes a day for a child, a child’s general education teachers must be able to support the strategies being taught by the specialist.
Dyslexia intervention strategies and training will become a part of ARI training for all teachers, which includes general education teachers. “The classroom strategies that are good for students with dyslexia really are good for all students who are struggling,” Stone said.
Students will be screened if their reading test scores are at the 25th percentile or lower. They can also be screened if a parent or teacher requests the screening. For students not yet taking standardized tests, other markers will be used to determine whether a student needs screening.
These screenings do not diagnose a student with dyslexia. Instead, screenings identify students who may benefit from dyslexia-specific interventions.
Those identified with dyslexia will be referred to problem-solving teams (PST) at the school. The PST will coordinate the interventions and monitor student progress.
Parents must be kept informed of goals and progress their child is making.
State board members expressed their support of this work all along the way.
Board member Mary Scott Hunter remarked, “So many more students will have so much more opportunity,” adding “It’s remarkable that we are where we are, and so quick.”
Gibbs and Rice can both attest that this victory was anything but quick, but they’ll take the victory.
As difficult as it was, particularly right before the breakthrough, Gibbs said the lesson she learned is to “keep communicating and keep connecting”.
At September’s work session, board member Stephanie Bell commended the group for sticking together and continuing to move forward. “That’s how it’s supposed to be done,” Bell said.
“It’s a start,” Rice said, adding that the real work has just begun. Implementing these strategies and interventions in Alabama’s classrooms is where the difference is made for children.
Asked what parents should do at this point, Rice urged parents to remain vigilant. “Parents can’t just let the school handle it. Parents still have to advocate for their children.”
NOTE: Gibbs and Rice were two of many advocates at the table. Christie Aitken of Roundtable Solutions documents some of the history of World Dyslexia Day….today, October 15, 2015…here and includes other advocates who worked to get dyslexia in the books.
Alabama Administrative Code adopts new amendments for dyslexic children – WHNT 19, Huntsville
This article was updated on October 16, 2015 at 5:20 p.m. to add Gibbs’ remarks about Stephanie Bell’s efforts.