NEW PALTZ – By the time Joey Harrington was in kindergarten, his mother, Kathy, realized he was having trouble reading and writing. While his teacher in the Wallkill Central School District said he would overtake him, his reading grades continued to drop. He was not identified as a child with special needs until five years later.
“I am so frustrated. I knew something was wrong, ”Harrington recalls of the troubled journey his family went through.
Even though Joey continued to fall behind in reading and crumble, the school never rated him more, Harrington said. After the family paid $ 2,600 for a private psychological assessment, the district finally identified him as a student with special needs while in fifth grade. The results showed that he suffered from dyslexia with language and learning disabilities.
Many families in the area shared similar experiences: Children showed signs of delayed reading as early as kindergarten, but they were not identified as students with special needs until several years later.
Dyslexia is one of the most common learning disabilities in the country, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. It is a learning disability that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying sounds in speech and learning their relationship to letters and words. The organization estimates that about one in five children have learning and attention problems such as dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Dawn Prati of Wallkill, a pediatric nurse practitioner who has helped families navigate the process, said one of the biggest challenges they face is that children are not identified early on. Many dyslexic children do not benefit from the typical reading assistance programs offered by schools, she said.
“Some people say you can’t diagnose dyslexia until the third year, which isn’t true. There are indicators before that,” Prati said. “The problem is there is a period when the brain develops in kids when they’re in kindergarten and they hit those building blocks, it’s super important to give them what they need to learn.
Neglected learning disability
Janice Vincenzo had trusted the school to do its best for her daughter until she found her tenth grader reading at grade one level. His daughter had been identified as a student with special needs in third grade and had been offered accommodations, including an assignment to a smaller learning group and extensions for testing, Vincenzo said, however, the accommodations covered her daughter’s real needs. In 2019, more than a year after Vincenzo requested that his daughter be assessed, the Wallkill School District finally paid for a private assessment.
“For many years, I didn’t realize that the accommodations they gave him to help him succeed never allowed them to determine what his diagnosis was,” said Vincenzo.
Public schools across the country have long refused to use the word dyslexia, according to the US Department of Education. Some parents and advocates say schools fail to identify students with dyslexia and ignore their needs due to a lack of funding to provide special services and staff with appropriate training.
Gina Decrescenzo, a special education lawyer based in White Plains, said many parents are unaware of a process whereby they can force the district to pay for a private assessment. She suggested parents request a full assessment through the district for suspected disability. If testing is insufficient or the child is denied services, she said, parents can request an independent educational assessment from the school district.
Wallkill Superintendent Kevin Castle declined to comment on individual cases, but said the district is granting independent assessments, where appropriate, based on individual needs.
Many parents pay for private assessments that can cost thousands of dollars before asking school districts to provide support services. Some even take legal action.
“A lot of parents fear retaliation by asking for more than what the school district offers. The cost of due process and hiring a lawyer is very expensive, ”said Vincenzo, founding member of Wallkill Parents for Dyslexia.
A lawsuit she filed against the school district won her reimbursement for her daughter’s placement in a private school that serves people with learning disabilities, as she had requested. Vincenzo said his daughter was doing much better academically, socially and emotionally.
Early intervention matters
Local educators and government officials have tried to improve support programs and facilitate early intervention for children with dyslexia.
State Senator James Skoufis of Cornwall introduced a new bill that would require annual dyslexia screening for all Kindergarten to Grade 2 students in the state and provide specialist education and support. He said one of the challenges is that children are often diagnosed long after second grade. He noted that early intervention would also save costs for schools, as they may need to devote more effort and resources to make up for lost years.
Dr Lenore Strocchia-Rivera, psychologist and founder of Learning Insights in Highland, said it’s important to identify dyslexia in children because if they don’t get the right educational approach they can keep taking falling behind academically and suffering emotionally.
“Many children, who don’t understand their learning differences in dyslexia, may think their failure is due to inferior intelligence,” Strocchia-Rivera said. She also noted that she had seen adults who had never been identified as dyslexic feel ashamed and end up in emotional pain.
Many schools in the area are devoting more resources to training programs to meet the needs of students with dyslexia. BOCES Ulster recently launched a county-wide training course for teachers on the Orton Gillingham approach, which is a multisensory and prescriptive way to teach students with reading difficulties.
Ulster BOCES Deputy Superintendent Jonah Schenker said the trainings would increase teachers’ skills in terms of identification and remediation at all levels.
One of the leading districts is the Wallkill School District, Schenker said. Superintendent Castle said the district started Orton-Gillingham training two years ago based on data and feedback from teachers and parents.
He praised the special education department for doing a great job of ensuring that they meet the needs of the students.
“We have an open door for parents. We hear their concerns and we will address them, ”Castle said.
Anthony White, director of student personnel for the Wallkill School District, said all K-6 reading teachers and a middle and high school reading teacher participate in training that focuses on a multisensory approach. Some district special education teachers have already been trained in the methodology, he said. White added that he has held monthly meetings for parents of students with special needs, and topics range from reading resources to support programs.
Prati said the multisensory approach is what was used for her dyslexic daughter in school. For example, when she learns certain words, part of the words should be colored blue and part red; when she learns the sounds, she is asked to tap on the desk.
For parents of dyslexic children, the journey is not only to help their children understand dyslexia and rebuild self-esteem, but also to come to terms with the fact that children need to be cultivated as they are.
“In the end, I told my daughter that she suffered from dyslexia helped her realize that she is okay,” said Prati. “I taught him that your brain is absolutely amazing. He has a love of pattern, creativity, music, art; it just has a little more trouble processing letters and sounds.