ABERDEEN, S.D. — Parents of dyslexic children in South Dakota weren't surprised that the Department of Education 2019 Report Card showed that only 54% of students in grades 3 through 8 and in 11th grade were proficient in reading and writing.
After all, those same parents warned lawmakers that would be the outcome if expect those kinds of results if the state continued to take a hands off approach to addressing students with dyslexia.
South Dakota recognizes dyslexia as a type of specific learning disability that affects students throughout the state, according to a brochure available on the South Dakota Department of Education’s website.
“Some students may struggle during early reading acquisition, while others do not struggle until the later grades when they face more complex language demands. For some struggling readers the difficulty may be the result of the learning disability, dyslexia,” the brochure states.
“The parents have been going and talking about dyslexia in Pierre since March of 2009,” said Shelly Bayer, a board member of the International Dyslexia Association’s Upper Midwest Branch and parent of a child with dyslexia.
During the 2016 legislative session, Bayer testified in favor of a bill that would require the state to provide face-to-face training for teachers on how to recognize, address and manage students showing symptom. Instead, legislators decided to create a dyslexia stakeholders group tasked with meeting three times to discuss the challenges facing students with dyslexia and how to best address their needs.
As a result of the stakeholder meetings, the state's Department of Education was tasked with developing a five-year plan where a short-term outcome provided education and training to educators on dyslexia so they could understand how to identify struggling readers and use assessments to diagnose dyslexia.
The intermediate outcome would be to evaluate students with dyslexia using school evaluation teams. “Educators will gain specific reading certification to support students in learning to read,” according to a plan summary on the state's education department's website.
The long-term outcome of the plan would be that teachers have “increased knowledge of and implement specific strategies, interventions, and accommodations to support struggling readers including students with dyslexia and that students with dyslexia will receive interventions addressing their needs.”
As a result, the impact of the plan would increase student achievement of struggling readers.
So far, the Department of Education has offered three training sessions for school district teams, which were led by University of South Dakota professors Kari Oyen and Daniel Hajovsky. The training provided information on how to help students with dyslexia. “The trainers will then provide follow-up consultation on a suspected case of dyslexia in the team’s district to help ensure the The training transfers into effective practice,” according to the education department's website.
Marsha Weiland is a certified teacher who works with Decoding Dyslexia, a grassroots movement that advocates for South Dakota families who have limited access to educational interventions for dyslexia.
Weiland was also a member of the stakeholder group that set the outcomes for the state to achieve with the five-year plan.
But Weiland’s communications on the Department of Education’s progress in implementing the plan have been discouraging and frustrating, she said.
Weiland noted that parts of the plan were supposed to have been developed already and the state was instructed to provide face-to-face dyslexia workshops as opposed to online training workshops.
“When we look at our reading scores, reading skills, reading comprehension and our phonics and ask why are these scores so low, it really stems from addressing dyslexia,” Weiland said.
The results of the South Dakota Department of Education 2019 Report Card, based on standardized tests, showed that about 54% of students tested in grades 3 through 8 and in 11th grade showed proficiency in reading and writing.
“If everything was implemented in the five-year-plan that we worked so hard to put together, if we had teacher training and school psychologists with the knowledge and capacity to evaluate and identify kids with dyslexia, then put it in a report, every school district would be talking about dyslexia,” Weiland asserted. “Then we would have higher reading scores,” she added.
While funding has been thrown out as a reason why the plan hasn’t taken off as expected, Weiland argues that early interventions would decrease the number of students in special education classrooms. That would likely lead to lower juvenile detention rates since dyslexia can lead to behavioral issues later on in life if left untreated.
“In all reality, if we do well at the very beginning when these kids walk into school, that's going to save us so much more money down the road,” Weiland said.
While the Department of Education’s progress is disheartening to Bayer as well, she is hopeful that legislators will take the issue more seriously than previous years.
Bayer met with the special education interim legislative committee in July to provide information on dyslexia and the evidence-based approaches that, if implemented, would be life changing for dyslexic students struggling to keep up with their peers.
The information Bayer provided seemed to resonate deeply with state Rep. Nancy Rasmussen, R-Hurley.
“I think she was interested and really starting to see that this was having a larger impact in our state and really wanted to dive deeper,” Bayer said.
According to epidemiology studies, 1 out of 5 students in the nation shows symptoms of dyslexia.
A student's struggle
Oftentimes, children with mild dyslexia aren’t eligible for special education services since they can fly under the radar of educators who don’t know how to identify mild cases of dyslexia.
That could have been the case for Sydney Wise, who was officially diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade after her mother noticed her exhibiting dyslexia symptoms.
Renee Wise had always watched for signs that her children may be dyslexic since her father was dyslexic, noting how dyslexia is hereditary.
“Sydney's big thing is once kindergarten started she had a list of high frequency words, and because it was all memorization she couldn’t remember them from one word to the next,” Renee Wise recalled.
Sydney said she began tutoring with her first grade teacher, who was provided with a learning plan by Renee.
Renee works as a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Aberdeen, but earned a master’s degree and dyslexia certificate through an online program offered by Mount St. Joseph’s University in Ohio.
Sydney credits her mother’s proactive approach to understanding dyslexia with having caught up on all her homework and is now reading at her class’s reading level.
“My mom made me start tutoring around first grade, so that's part of the reason why I can read so well. Otherwise it's been quite hard because I don't really like talking to teachers about it, but if I don't then they don't know at all,” Sydney said, who is now a student at Holgate Middle School in Aberdeen.
Getting Sydney the help she needed to succeed wasn’t easy or cheap, Renee Wise said. The hardest part was hearing her daughter call herself stupid when she was only 6 years old.
“We were told at the time that there was no way that she would qualify for services in the school because she didn't have a large enough gap. They basically wait for kids to fail. You have to be in the eleventh percentile to be eligible for special education,” Wise said.
Sydney qualified for intervention services in first and second grade, which consisted of the same curriculum as her regular classroom but at a slower pace.
“That wasn't effective for her and was not going to be effective for her. She needed something different,” her mother said.
“We had to get her tested ourselves, so we took her to the reading clinic in Rochester and where she was officially diagnosed. But after her testing, she did not qualify for SPED services under South Dakota’s guidelines. That's where a lot of kids fall in a gap."
South Dakota is also one of seven states without dyslexia specific legislation, which Renee said leaves many dyslexic children’s needs unaddressed, which can profoundly undermine their potential and lead to self-esteem issues.
“Any of the states that don't have specific dyslexia legislation addressing it as an issue within itself rely on the special education qualifications and there's a huge gap of kids that need that intervention but aren't getting it,” Renee Wise explained.
Sydney believes that’s the case for many of her friends, who she said struggle with reading similar to how she does.
“We never really address that at all because the teachers don't want to talk about it. The only teacher that I am fine with talking to and the only teacher that knows I have dyslexia is my language arts teacher,” Sydney said.
Bayer, Weiland, and Renee Wise hope lawmakers realize that dyslexia is something that needs to become a real priority and action needs to be taken within the school system.
“Don't wait for them to fail,” Wise said.