Special Education

New Type of Public Schools Specialize in Teaching Students With Dyslexia

By Elizabeth Heubeck — June 12, 2023 7 min read
Students in the online blended learning class at the ALLIES School in Colorado Springs, Colo., work with programs like ST Math and Lexia, both created for students with dyslexia, on April 7, 2023.
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By all accounts, 11-year-old Nathan Adler seemed to be set up for early academic success. His father is a teacher; his mother, a speech-language pathologist. They’ve read to their son since he was very young.

The local public school he attended screened for dyslexia risk factors three times per academic year, beginning in kindergarten. And that’s when the results of Nathan’s assessments began coming back in the “red” zone—indicating risk factors for dyslexia, a learning disorder that affects one’s ability to read.

“Nobody from his school ever said anything about it. They would just send home more sight words for him to memorize,” said Jill Adler, Nathan’s mother. “The assumption was: We weren’t reading to him, we weren’t doing what we were supposed to. It did not matter what we did, he could not learn to read.”

As alarming to Adler as her son’s inability to learn to read was the school’s ineffective response to his well-documented delay.

“It was very clear to me that his school had no idea what to do to help him,” Adler said. “They knew next to nothing about dyslexia.”

Some families at that point in the schooling process turn to independent schools to get more intensive help for their children. But special schools or private tutors can be costly. Now, however, a handful of public schools are emerging that are dedicated to serving students with dyslexia and other language-based reading delays. There appears to be no single model for such schools, but they do share some key similarities among their programs and the families they serve, many of whom arrive at these schools in a similar state of exhaustion after having tried, and failed, to make their local public schools work for their children.

Students at the ALLIES School in Colorado Springs, Colo., play outside on the playground they share with Odyssey Elementary School on April 7, 2023.

“By the time people come here, they are completely desperate,” said Maria Paluselli, the chief executive officer of Pittsburgh-based Provident Charter School, which opened in 2016 with about 50 students and currently serves 330 students with dyslexia and other language-based disorders in 2nd through 8th grades. The students come mainly from their local public schools, after they failed to learn how to read.

Schools offer small student to staff ratios, intensive literacy instruction

Each of these specialized public schools commit to small student-to-staff ratios and daily intensive literacy instruction using evidence-based approaches.

Provident Charter’s slightly longer-than-average school day accommodates a daily 45- to 60-minute reading intervention period led by teachers trained either in the Wilson or Orton-Gillingham approach to literacy instruction. Each small group session contains between four and six students per instructor. These intensive instruction periods happen in addition to daily 60- to 90-minute English language arts blocks.

“We build our schedule around reading intervention, not the other way around,” Paluselli said.

The Bridge Preparatory Charter School in the Staten Island borough of New York city brings the same level of intensity to its instruction for students with dyslexia and other language-based learning difficulties. It opened in September 2019 to students in grades 1 and 2, and now serves students in 1st through 5th grades from every ZIP code in that borough, according to Timothy Castanza, the school’s co-founder and executive director.

Unlike the other schools profiled in this article, Bridge Preparatory accepts a mix of students, some of whom have reading delays and others who don’t. Castanza said that 63 percent of the school’s current students have learning delays, primarily a literacy development delay or ADHD. The rest, he said, are general education learners.

“Our job is to prepare kids for the next space. We wanted to make sure we built a community that was neurodiverse,” he said, adding that all students receive, and benefit by, the structured literacy approach the school provides.

Every day, all students at Bridge Preparatory attend an hour-long period of Orton-Gillingham instruction, followed by an independent reading period that gives them time to apply the literacy skills they’re learning. The groups are fluid, explained Castanza, and are based on students’ current reading readiness level. Literacy assessments take place three times a year, after which students might change groups according to their test results.

The school day runs an hour and 10 minutes longer than most public schools to accommodate the 60-minute Orton-Gillingham period, Castanza explained. “That’s the only thing we are dogmatic about,” he said. “It’s non-negotiable. We know that’s the primary driver for our kids’ growth.”

Daily intensive literacy intervention also takes priority at ALLIES Elementary (which stands for Academy for Literacy, Learning and Innovation Excellence), a public school in Colorado Springs, Colo., serving students in grades 2-5 that launched six years ago. During a daily 50-minute period, small groups of three or four students take part in Take Flight, an intervention program for students with dyslexia based on the Orton-Gillingham program and created by the Luke Waites Center for Dyslexia and Learning Disorders at Scottish Rite Hospital in Dallas. Certified academic language therapists teach the small groups.

The school, like the others featured in this article, has a waiting list. Because of the strict structure of the Take Flight curriculum, which requires students to start only from the beginning of the lessons, ALLIES doesn’t accept any new children past the first week of school. Nor can students enter the program after 2nd grade.

“We have some non-negotiables,” said Rebecca Thompson, ALLIES’ director of academic services. One is the 50-minutes a day, five days a week Take Flight instruction. The other is that students spend a minimum of three years at the school. Although the school maintains strict parameters, Thompson said the payoff is worth it. “They [students] come to us beaten down,” she said. “That doesn’t last long.”

Why the need exists: insufficient teacher training, costly alternatives

In general, public schools are not equipped to provide such intensive and systematic approaches to literacy instruction. Few (less than 1 in 5) general education teachers feel “very well prepared” to teach students with mild-to-moderate learning disabilities like dyslexia, according to an Education Week analysis. Special education classes are not necessarily a good fit because they tend to cater to students whose learning profiles, and academic needs, vary widely.

Tutors trained in specialized literacy approaches such as Orton-Gillingham can command up to $100 per hour, and are not widely available. Private schools serving students with dyslexia can be found in most states, but they cost on average between $30,000 and $70,000 annually, sometimes more, according to Understood, a nonprofit that advocates for people with learning differences.

The federal Individuals with Disability Education Act allows parents to pursue legal action if they feel their local school system is unable to meet their children’s academic needs. But, statistically, the odds are against the parents, observed Perry A. Zirkel, university professor emeritus of education and law at Lehigh University.

Zirkel conducted a study examining the outcome of 64 court decisions in which parents of students with reading disabilities sought Orton-Gillingham (OG) instruction “under the IDEA’s central obligation for a free appropriate public education (FAPE).” The courts ruled in favor of the parents in 23 percent of the cases. “It is very daunting to go through the whole process,” Zirkel said.

Some parents instead withdraw their children from public schools and seek alternatives. Such was the case with Maryland resident Karleen Spitulnik, parent to a son with dyslexia and leader in the parent advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia of Maryland. “My son would have to fail at school first, and then I’d have to fight for appropriate reading instruction,” said Spitulnik. Instead, she paid for her son to attend a private school in her community that serves students with dyslexia, whose tuition cost falls into the price range of most private schools for dyslexic students.

“The decision was a good one for our family. We were able to be attentive parents instead of spending our time and energy fighting the school district. Our son worked hard to learn to read and write and is now thriving in [a regular] high school,” Spitulnik said.

Adler hopes she will soon be saying the same thing about her son, who graduated from ALLIES this year and will be attending a traditional middle school in the fall. She has reason for optimism.

“Now, there’s a clear confidence with his reading,” Adler said. “It used to be, when we were playing a game and it was his turn, somebody had to help him. Now, he can read during games, read signs, read instructions. You can tell he’s really proud of it.”

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