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Pilot project puts focus on dyslexia

State program supports screening, services for reading disability

A North Dakota pilot program is making $250,000 available to schools and educational associations to develop programs that provide early screening and intervention services for dyslexia.

The 2019 Legislature appropriated the funding in a bill sponsored by first-time legislator and educator Rep. Michelle Strinden, R-Fargo, who saw the need for better services through her own family’s experience and in working with other parents.

“That’s really my passion to help other students in the state of North Dakota gain access to the type of teaching that will help them to read at an early age,” she said.

Dyslexia is defined in state law as a neurological learning disability characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent recognition of words and poor spelling and decoding abilities, independent of the individual’s general intelligence level.

The Orton-Gillingham approach is the gold standard for teaching children with dyslexia, although it’s not currently used in North Dakota public schools, Strinden said.

The demand for dyslexia services was apparent at a House Education Committee meeting on House Bill 1461, which appropriated the grant funds, Strinden said. She said the room was crowded with people who presented testimony for about four hours.

An estimated 15% to 20% of the population is dyslexic, Strinden said.

“That’s a large group of children that are not being reached, so the consequences for them are grave if they don’t learn to read,” she said.

Her son, now in high school, had been identified with dyslexia at a young age at a private therapy center in Moorhead, Minnesota. Strinden began home schooling and sending her son to therapy for dyslexia when he was in second grade.

Because children with dyslexia often are smart and capable, they can hide signs of the disability, particularly if their disabilities are only moderate, Strinden said. Sometimes, signs of dyslexia don’t become apparent until third or fourth grade, when education switches from learning to read to reading to learn, she said.

The education system has been reluctant to address dyslexia or even call it by its name, she added. Often, educators first try interventions such as placing students in slower reading groups, which don’t prove successful.

“They need intensive reading therapy,” Strinden said. “We see a lot of these kids really falling through the cracks They can learn how to read. They just need a different teaching system. They need a different methodology.”

Anna Hoover, Williston, was 4 years old when she was identified as having dyslexia while enrolled in a private preschool in Baltimore.

“It was really a tough journey,” she said. “I wasn’t making the gains that other children were.”

She recalls the anxiety and reluctance to attend school or participate in classroom activities because she couldn’t keep up with her peers.

“For me, to just be there and see my peers being able to read and I couldn’t – that was very upsetting,” she said. “I wanted to be like everyone else. I just wanted to be a normal kid.

“I think a lot of educators don’t understand the emotional side,” she added. “It’s very emotionally taxing on children.”

Her parents eventually enrolled her in a school for children with dyslexia, where she studied until entering high school. She went on to college and last year worked at St. Joseph’s Parish in Williston, teaching kindergarten. She is working toward obtaining a North Dakota teaching license.

Strinden said there is a need for screening of young students, for educating current educators on teaching methods and for adding those methods to curriculums at teacher education colleges. There’s also a need to create a place where parents and educators can go for information.

“You feel like, as a parent, you have to start from scratch and figure it all out,” Strinden said.

Decoding Dyslexia is a statewide group with a mission to increase awareness and connect parents with practitioners and experts. Justine Gibbon, a Kindred teacher and parent of two sons with dyslexia, is president of the organization. The group seeks to connect with teachers and parents on Facebook at Decoding Dyslexia North Dakota.

Strinden said other good things are happening in the state. The University of North Dakota is working to connect experts in the state and offer a dyslexia credential through its Speech Pathology Department. Dickinson State University and the University of Mary in Bismarck also are looking at options, she said.

School districts, regional education associations or special education units are eligible to apply to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction to participate in the pilot program. An application must include plans for screening children at risk, enrolling children at risk in a reading program staffed by trained specialists and evaluating the effects of the program.

Information wasn’t available regarding the interest of local education groups in applying.

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