WASHINGTON — Texas is a leader in early dyslexia identification in schools and a pioneer in teacher training and public awareness, but the state’s schools still have a long way to go, lawmakers and advocates said Wednesday at a Capitol Hill hearing.
Just ask Robbi Cooper, who leads state and federal policy issues for Decoding Dyslexia, a grassroots organization in Texas.
Cooper says her son, Ben, who has dyslexia and is a freshman at Stephen F. Austin High School in Austin, is taking advanced courses with the help of audio books. She traveled to Washington for the House Space and Science Committee hearing on the learning disability, and on legislation to finance more research on the problem.
“Generally schools want to work on weaknesses in nonspecific ways,” Cooper said. “We really fostered him getting into more advanced academics.”
At the hearing Wednesday, witnesses said early identification, proper teacher training, solid curricula and more research are the keys to aiding dyslexic students in Texas and across the country.
“We need to make sure that all school districts actually abide by the law,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Dyslexia Caucus. “Just because we have it in writing doesn’t mean it’s applied.”
Dyslexia, a learning disability that affects reading and phonemic awareness, affects one in 10 Americans, according to Austin Learning Solutions, an educational program specializing in reading and dyslexia. The disability does not discriminate; Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci both suffered from it.
In the U.S. House, the Research Excellence and Advancement for Dyslexia Act, introduced in July by Smith, would require that at least $5 million be designated for dyslexia research in 2016.
Experts say one of the biggest problems is that dyslexia often goes unnoticed in schools, leaving children far behind once the problem is identified.
“Sometimes, kids have so many areas of strength that early reading problems go unnoticed, and their difficulties do not become apparent until they are faced with timed tests that require a lot of reading,” said Vickie Schafer, a licensed psychologist at the Austin Psychology & Assessment Center, which provides psychological services to children in Austin. Schafer, interviewed in an email exchange, has worked with kids as early as age 6.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, common symptoms of dyslexia include difficulty with phonological processing, spelling, and rapid visual-verbal responding.
Rachel Robillard, who oversees dyslexia intervention for the Austin Independent School District, said the district hopes to soon have at least one certified academic language therapist in each of its 129 Austin campuses to aid in early identification. There are currently 61 trained teachers.
Teachers are trained from the ground up about dyslexia and provided curriculum before being sent back into the classrooms, Robillard said. Progress is monitored.
So far, so good. Robillard said 5,000 students have been properly diagnosed over the past 18 months, about 5 percent of the overall student population, up from 2,000 students in 2013. She said she is often asked to speak in other states about how Texas is addressing dyslexia in schools.
Dyslexic students are ”typically very creative, they find ways to compensate for not being able to read,” Robillard told the committee. “They are able to come up with that solution that no one thought of.”
Texas school districts are required by law to report any student with dyslexia to the Texas Education Agency, which includes dyslexia guidelines in a handbook that was published in 1986 and updated last year. Most dyslexic students in the state are served through 504 Plans, which ensure that students with disabilities are accommodated.
Robillard, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said she wants early intervention for kids with dyslexia “to avoid any additional risk-factors associated with the inability to learn to read.”
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The Medill News Service is a content partner of The Texas Tribune and is providing reports from Washington, D.C.