News Column

Dyslexia Among Hispanics in Texas Schools a 'Disgrace'

August 5, 2013

An effort to raise awareness about black and Hispanic students struggling with dyslexia -- described by experts as a civil rights issue -- is expected to make its way to Houston in November.

The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity's Multicultural Dyslexia Awareness Initiative will focus on advocacy for the diagnosis and treatment of minority students with the common learning disability. Yale University launched the initiative on its Connecticut campus this week and will host symposiums in four other cities, including Houston, in the fall.

As many as 1 in 5 children has dyslexia, but school districts often refuse to acknowledge or treat it despite proven remediation techniques, said pediatrician Sally Shaywitz, a professor of learning development at Yale University School of Medicine, who co-directs the dyslexia center with her husband.

"It's a national disgrace," Shaywitz said. "We're on a mission to educate people about dyslexia. People are just clueless."

Dyslexia makes it difficult for people to break words down into their individual sounds. It causes struggles not only with reading, but with speech, spelling and even learning a second language.

Many people incorrectly assume that the main symptom of dyslexia involves writing letters or words backwards, but that is a common developmental phase that most children outgrow. Dyslexic students have normal- to above-normal intelligence, but they struggle to learn letter sounds and rhyming words.

Texas passed one of the nation's toughest dyslexia laws in 1985, requiring campuses to identify and serve students with the reading disability, but few comply fully.

Legislators recently passed a law requiring all Texas school districts to report the number of dyslexic students enrolled -- data that should be public by 2015.

Some parents, mainly affluent white parents, are able to use the law to advocate for services for their children. But minority students are largely ignored, their reading struggles explained as related to language barriers or poverty, regardless of whether that is really the case, advocates say.

"The schools pull so many different things. All the school has to do is delay," Shaywitz said.

A 2011 audit by a Harvard University professor found that Houston ISD vastly underserves dyslexic students, prompting the district to increase its teacher-training efforts.

"We're making progress," Superintendent Terry Grier said. "We're not where we want to be and I don't think it's enough to just diagnose."

Between 2008 and 2013, Houston ISD increased the number of students diagnosed as dyslexic from 326 to 1,036 -- still less than 1 percent of the district's roughly 200,000 students, Grier said.

Parent advocate Michele Okolovitch said getting a child diagnosed and then convincing a district to provide the specialized reading curriculum outlined under the law is a struggle for almost all Texas families.

Too often, schools let students fail before they even attempt remediation. Eventually, many struggling students are pulled out for private school or home-schooling or they drop out, advocates said.

"They want to say we have a law, but they're not enforcing the law. It's like speeding," said Okolovitch, who is helping organize an advocacy group for parents of dyslexic children.

In just six months, the group has quickly attracted 60 members from Pearland, Friendswood and other southeast Houston school districts.

The struggle is compounded when parents don't have the expertise, education, language skills or confidence to take on the school system, advocates said.

Mary Carol Coffman, a North Texas mother who is part of the advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia, said she appreciates Yale's multicultural efforts.

"When one goes to dyslexia-related meetings where parents are included, it's a vast sea of white faces, both from the medical and therapy side, as well as the parent side," she said. "They want to help change that, and believe me, Decoding Dyslexia Texas and the rest of the movement wants to attract more of these parents as well."


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