San Diego Unified Opens Up About Support For Dyslexic Students
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dyslexia is one of the oldest identified running problems, and yet there is still a question about whether San Diego students are getting the proper help. Recently, KPBS Education Reporter Matt Bowler profiled a families struggle to get the proper diagnosis and intervention for their child at San Diego unified school District. Some of the controversies surrounded the way the school district determines if a dyslexic student qualifies as having a learning disability. Recently I spoke about the subject with Keli Hurli and Sonia Picos. Here's that interview: [ AUDIO FILE PLAYING ] MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Keli, I think most people know that dyslexia has something to do with having trouble reading. I think there is even a common belief that dyslexics see words backwards. Is that right? KELI HURLY: No, and that is one of the main things that people say about. They will switch a B for a D, or was for saw. People with dyslexia see things the way everybody else see things. But dyslexia is a neurobiological condition that makes reading more difficult. When they get to those words, they are either guessing or have not unlearned the mirror image we are born with. Looking at a B and seeing a D is normal through first grade. All kindergartners do it, a lot of first-graders do it, that is normal. Dyslexia is an unexpected disability, with unexpected reading issues. It makes decoding hard. It makes reading words in isolation hard. It makes reading nonsense words hard. It makes fluency, comprehension, and spelling really difficult. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And it has something to do with the way that the brain processes images, is that right? KELI HURLY: It is how the brain processes the phonological parts of the language. They see BAT, and it's how the brain processes it and blends it together and brings it out fast enough to read a word. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Does that mean people who have dyslexia cannot really learn to read? KELI HURLY: They can learn to read, and that is our big push. If you can identify these kids in kindergarten and give them intervention and care gotten through first grade, they might be able to read fine. They will always struggle with some things, but they will not need specialized service if they get intervention early. I worked in adult literacy for 12 years, we taught adults with dyslexia how to read all the time. If you are dyslexic you can learn with intervention. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If it is common for children to misapprehend B and D in kindergarten, how can you find out in kindergarten that a child is dyslexic? KELI HURLY: I love this question, thank you for asking this. What you can do with a child in kindergarten is give them a phonological processing test. This is the ability to verbally manipulate language. Since we do not expect them to be able to read in kindergarten, we expect them to understand language well enough to manipulate its. I give them the word cat and asked them what does cat say when you take off the k sound? If they cannot do that, on an array of testing, those are red flags for dyslexia. You also have to look in to the background, because dyslexia is genetic. It looks different from person to person. It can be mild for dad and severe for the daughter. Dad may not realize he is dyslexic until his daughter is struggling. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How many people have dyslexia? KELI HURLY: They estimate up to 20%. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And that would be at different degrees of dyslexic? KELI HURLY: It occurs on a continuum. A lot of people say that is high, but you have to remember some people are on the mild side and are never identified. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If someone has a severe case, would that be apparent at a young age? KELI HURLY: It would, you can do that with the phonological processing test. You can see a kindergartner who cannot write their name, or is looking at a B and calling it a two, those are already flex. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How does San Diego Unified School District identify dyslexic students? SONIA PICOS: We don't specifically assess for dyslexia. Our team of school psychologists identify for educational disability. Dyslexia falls under specific learning disabilities handicap condition. The law states the front ways for us to assess for that. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are San Diego's teachers trained to spot a child who may be dyslexic? SONIA PICOS: Our staff is trained to identify those areas of need that may be in processing speed, phonological awareness, and different areas. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When with the district apply a phonological test? Would they give a test like that to a child struggling with reading to see whether or not SONIA PICOS: It happens all the time, as early as kinder. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the story, the family profiled had to get their own test for their child. Why would that happen, and does that happen often? SONIA PICOS: One of the things that we want to clarify, as a district, we do not need a parents to get their own medical diagnosis of dyslexia to prove disability. When we suspect disability, our team will determine what the suspected area of disability is. We will see what assessments we need, what observations, and interview the family. It would be composed of multiple assessments, formal and informal. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Would that happen in first or second grade? Is there a period of time that the children have to be observed before tests are ministered? SONIA PICOS: By law, as part of our child find obligations, assessments start as early as age 3. Family would not necessarily have to wait until any specific time frame. If there is a suspected disability as early as three. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But they would not be learning to read by three, right? Dyslexia is reading, right? SONIA PICOS: It is vocabulary based. I will let Keli chime in. KELI HURLY: It is phonological awareness. It is not just reading. At the beginning, it shows itself as inability to verbally manipulate language and that translates to difficulty reading. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When is the best time to intervene? KELI HURLY: Five years old. As soon as you know. These kids have normal intelligence and the ability to learn and experience massive frustration at school. It impedes motivation to learn and they feel worthless, frustrated, and do not want to go to school anymore. They know they have the ability to learn, but they do not know what is going on and are not getting help that they need. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wants to funnel in on some of the things that were said in the report. This family had a really hard time trying to get people to become aware of the fact of what they knew their child was struggling with in learning. There was dyslexia in the family and they had the child tested because the school was not about to test the child at this point, because there was not enough evidence of any reading or learning disability. What is the criteria that you use to decide whether or not a specific child is going to be tested to see if there is a problem with dyslexia? SONIA PICOS: Without going into critical details, on one specific case, it would be, for us as a school district, if there is a concern, we have in this case, there had been already assessments in other areas. I think this is one example, of many, where we have been able to provide proper assessments. I am not sure, not knowing, I know the case a little bit. I was a part of it in pieces of it. I would not want to generalize the specific situation with how common practice occurs in the district overall. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me expand that. There was a lot said in the report criticizing the district use in the discrepancy model for intervening. Can you tell us what that is? SONIA PICOS: The regulations allow for different ways for us to assess, and the discrepancy model is only one way. This is what was used in the past, and we know that the law was amended in 2004 to extend to that. Because what was happening as some of those students were being missed, because of the discrepancy model, the discrepancy model in itself is not just one assessment standalone. It will also bring about use, observations, it is not just one method and that is it. The discrepancy model is where there is discrepancy between ability and performance. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And if indeed the child is performing at a rate that is a grade and a half behind where they should be performing, a 1.5 discrepancy between where they should be and the level they are asked, isn't that it? SONIA PICOS: It is more than that. That was what I was talking about, that is exactly why the law was amended. We were missing a lot of students, particularly those with reading disability. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is the one of the models that San Diego uses. We were just given a statement from San Diego unified, saying that is still one of the methods that the school uses. SONIA PICOS: It is one of the methods, but it is not just discrepancy between ability and performance. We are also looking at the results of the test and how the student is performing in comparison to his or her peers. It cannot just be based on the standardized assessment. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In what you know about the students that you see in the dyslexia learning Institute, are too many kids being missed? KELI HURLY: Yes, too many kids are being missed. I really appreciate Sonia saying that on the record, I think a lot of parents will take comfort in knowing that San Diego unified realized it is not just the discrepancy model. We are seeing they are being denied services based on the discrepancy model. They are being denied assessments because they are too young, they are not far enough behind, or they are not low enough in the class. These are all things that we have heard. We hear that dyslexia is not real. We hear they are not far behind enough and we do not work with spelling. These are all things that are nice to hear. Parents take comfort in hearing that they are not doing that anymore. Parents who come to my center, because kids are not getting services at the school. That is unfortunate. It takes the free and appropriate out of FAPE. They should not have to come to our center. And we would love it if they didn't. We would be perfectly okay if they were getting the appropriate services at school. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What was that word you were using? KELI HURLY: FAPE, free and appropriate public education. That is what everyone is entitled to. When the parent has to go inside to pay for tutoring, free is gone because now they are paying. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you Sonia, once a child is known to be dyslexic, the school district has found out the child suffers from that condition, what type of special education the San Diego unified provide? SONIA PICOS: I think that is one of the MythBusters we need to address. Not every student that has a medical diagnosis of dyslexia is notable for special education services. Many people with dyslexia are able to do just fine. In severe cases, yes, there are situations where students can be found eligible for special education services. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In other words, the school district knows that the child has dyslexia, knows they are struggling with reading, but there are no special services? SONIA PICOS: There are special services. I'm sorry, I did not address the second part of the question. If there is medical diagnosis, absolutely. The team at that point will see if there is educational impact for that student. If there is, absolutely, the team would make sure that we start the individual educational program process and timelines. KELI HURLY: Dyslexia is not a medical diagnosis, it is not treated medically or diagnosed by pediatricians. It is not treated with medication, it is actually just a diagnosis done by someone who is trained in assessment. Errands do not need medical diagnosis for dyslexia. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, because I think you had some problems with the way that dyslexia is being treated by the school district. Does the law regarding learning disabilities require school districts to provide dyslexic students with individualized programs? KELI HURLY: Let me clarify a few things. It is not just San Diego unified. It is a national problem. We get emails and calls all over the country. This is not just our local issue the law requires that they provide appropriate education. Parents are not allowed to go in and say I want the best, I want this specific thing. But the district is responsible for responding to the students identified needs with research-based programs for kids with dyslexia. They have to provide appropriate services. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And from the response that we got from the district, you are launching pilot programs and other kinds of ideas to spot these kids and help them right? SONIA PICOS: Absolutely. I think what I want to be clear with, if we know that a student is struggling with reading, that is something that we pay close attention to. Our goal is to make sure that none of our students are floundering. Or not getting supports and services they need to be successful. Along discrepancy model, research-based practices, response to intervention, and we are doing that at a few schools and getting a lot more information on it, because it is also clear that it is not just response to intervention. That is just one step of the process. Another one is our strengths and weaknesses. We are looking at the strengths of a student with a reading disability. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to end it there. Thank you both very much.
Dyslexia is one of the oldest known learning problems and yet there's still a question about whether San Diego students are getting the proper help for it.
Recently, KPBS Education reporter Matt Bowler profiled one family's struggle to get the proper diagnosis and intervention for their child at San Diego Unified School District.
Some of the controversy surrounded the way the school district determines if a dyslexic student qualifies as having a learning disability.
Today on KPBS Midday Edition we explore the challenges students with dyslexia face in the classroom and what San Diego Unified is doing to help.