Dyslexia a challenge for students and teachers in Alaska schools

Published: Nov. 22, 2019 at 8:05 PM AKST
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Around one in five people in the United States have dyslexia, dysgraphia, or another form of the learning disability. Nowadays, resources and technology make life a lot easier for people who have it, but teachers and administrators say there are still many struggles in helping those students who have it.

Kendra Bartz, the director for K-12 professional development at Anchorage School District says the process of finding out begins in the same classrooms as all the other students.

“We have assessments throughout the year that are given to all students and those are kind of our first line of defense to see if the student is making progress in the grade level that they’re in,” Bartz said, “if not then we start looking at what are called our multi-tiered systems of support.”

She says that tier one is the general education curriculum. If students show signs of struggling, they begin intervention assessments based on individual need. Eventually if they score low enough on those assessments, she said they could be placed in an entirely different curriculum.

The owner of Reading Write Alaska, a learning center for kids with dyslexia and other kinds of learning disabilities, Heather Walton says that the interventions will often come too late. Walton is a professional speech pathologist who worked as a teacher for 12 years, two of which were at ASD.

“Especially in those early grades, you’ll hear, ‘oh they’ll catch up,’ and then you get even further into second and third grade. Then you try to get your kid help and get them tested,” she said, “you get them tested and then they don’t qualify because you have to score so low to qualify for services in the school district.”

According to Diane Orr, the director of K-12 professional learning at ASD, time is the biggest challenge to overcome when helping students with dyslexia.

“There’s a lot of professional learning that needs to come with how to provide this type of instruction to students,” she said, “and time in a school day is the most challenging. One because we need more time with kids but also we need to have more time as professionals.”

Bartz said there are only two or three days set aside for teachers to learn more skills to help children with special needs. Both Bartz and Orr said that there’s outright a shortage of teachers, but the ones they do get are often not trained to help kids with dyslexia.

That’s a challenge emphasized by lack of dyslexia legislation in Alaska. Walton said it’s one of only seven states that doesn’t have any. Although, last summer, a Reading Task Force was started in state with a focus on tackling challenges in teaching kids who have it.

Superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop, is a fierce advocate for reading literacy in the district and statewide. She said she wants more legislation on reading from the state, period.

“The department of Education and Early Development does provide some services and resources,” she said, “but beyond that, I would look forward to our state, legislature, and governor to talk about the importance of reading.”

She continued by saying that ASD does have coaches for teachers to help them learn how to teach students read better, but not all districts have that.

In today’s world, there’s a lot more awareness and technology that helps give people with dyslexia ways to keep up with their peers according to Wil Sundberg, who grew up with it in the 80’s.

He said that he grew up not liking to read, which transferred into him not liking school as much. Sundberg then found out how thankful he was for things like shop class where he learned he was really good at working with his hands.

Now, he designs and builds prosthetic limbs.

“You’re in school and people tell you to try harder and you’re not applying yourself and then you find things that you excel at and you kind of hang on to those as tight as you can,” he said.

Now, Sundberg uses things like podcasts and audiobooks to intake most of the information he learns about. Including the stories from other dyslexic people and how they deal with it and ways they found out what they were good at. Sundberg said he started doing that when he found out his son was also dyslexic.

He said they were lucky that they caught it that early. Now, he said his son goes to reading classes outside of school where he’s learning to read much better than he did when he was growing up.