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Peter’s Take: Reform APS Reading Curriculum for Dyslexic Students

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In Arlington, we have high expectations — a generally top-notch APS professional staff and a supportive community of taxpayers who value education.

The School Board has set a goal to achieve reading SOL pass rates in the 90-95 percent range for every subgroup of students measured by the Virginia Department of Education. Only White and Asian students have reached the target. Pass rates in 2015 — see slide number 15 — were:

  • 74 percent for Black students
  • 71 percent for Hispanic students
  • 69 percent for economically disadvantaged students
  • 59 percent for students with disabilities

Based on information supplied to the citizens English Language Arts Advisory Committee (ELAAC), APS’ elementary school reading screening tests have documented doubling failure rates with each passing year. Four percent of kindergarteners, 8 percent of first graders, and 15 percent of second graders have been identified as reading below grade level.

APS’ middle school reading screening tests tell an even bleaker story of our students’ reading abilities. Thirty-seven percent of Gunston, 44 percent of Jefferson, 45 percent of Kenmore, 24 percent of Swanson, and 19 percent of Williamsburg students are reading below grade level. This is the equivalent of 1,500 out of 4,500 middle schoolers, outlined in the ELAAC Report on pages 20 and 21.

Narrowing These Reading Achievement Gaps

A very significant number of APS students are falling behind in reading because they are dyslexic. Numerous studies — from the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development and the International Dyslexia Association — have established that dyslexia is a reading disability that affects up to 20 percent of the population. APS currently enrolls about 25,000 students. That means that up to 5,000 APS students could be affected by dyslexia.

What APS Has Done

In response to over 10 years of parent advocacy, APS has established a Dyslexia Task Force, trained staff in an alternative reading methodology, conducted Dyslexia Awareness Training in every APS school, and established an APS Dyslexia Webpage.

However, all of these accomplishments have taken many more years than they should have. As a result, a group of over 45 APS parents sent a letter in July to APS protesting how long the process has dragged out. The parents’ letter confirms what APS has done is riddled with elements of dysfunction and only superficially appears to support dyslexic students.

APS’ ELA Department may have a potential conflict of interest that is blocking rapid progress.

Curriculum reform would help thousands of APS students with dyslexia learn how to read. However, APS’ Supervisor of the English Language Arts (ELA) Department, Dr. Michelle Picard, who is responsible for designing and implementing APS’ ELA curriculum, is also the published author of her own reading curriculum. APS has bought her curriculum with our taxpayer dollars and uses it.

If APS were to follow the guidance published on its own webpage, those identified students would have to be provided with an alternative reading curriculum, not Dr. Picard’s.

Conclusion

APS urgently needs to:

  1. Specifically identify all of its dyslexia-affected students
  2. Build an adequate capacity of staff trained in the alternative reading curriculum those students need
  3. Effectively deliver reading instruction to those specific students

Each year APS fails to act is another year in which thousands of poor readers continue to struggle academically and emotionally. No one can turn back that clock.

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