Fort Worth school district puts focus, funding on dyslexia services

Ellie Martinez, 12, and her sister Katie Martinez, 8, have been diagnosed with dyslexia but have found success with the help of Fort Worth school district programs.
Ellie Martinez, 12, and her sister Katie Martinez, 8, have been diagnosed with dyslexia but have found success with the help of Fort Worth school district programs.

Ellie Martinez remembers feeling pretty good about reading and writing when she was little.

But that ease of learning soon changed, and she wasn’t too young to notice.

“In first grade, I was having problems spelling cat, hat, rat — stuff like that,” said Ellie, who is now 12. “That was probably whenever I first noticed, ‘Wow, I am really not good at spelling’ ... which made me feel like ‘What’s wrong? Why can’t I do this?’ 

Ellie’s parents, Sarah and William Martinez, were already on the lookout for signs of dyslexia. Her father has the learning disorder, which can run in a family.

Dyslexia is a learning disorder in which differences in the brain make learning letter sounds difficult, according to Texas Scottish Rite Hospital For Children.

“You could see she was struggling,” said Sarah Martinez, who noticed that her daughter had issues with sight words in kindergarten. “It was just a jumble for her.”

By second grade, Ellie was diagnosed with dyslexia and eventually placed in pullout classes aimed at training her brain to process language. She was able to succeed at Fort Worth’s South Hills Elementary and McLean 6th Grade Center.

“When you get the help you need, things can improve,” Sarah Martinez said. “It’s hard and it’s a lot of work, but she can do it.”

The Fort Worth district is making a $5 million investment in dyslexia services this school year. At Eagle Mountain-Saginaw schools, a district that is cited by parents and experts as an example of how to serve dyslexic students, the district added a full-time therapist to its team. In the Dallas suburb of Richardson, the district is using about $800,000 to pay for 16 new dyslexia teachers. The Crowley district has also added resources to its dyslexia services.

“Dyslexia is something people are born with, and it has nothing to do with intelligence,” said Emily Youngberg, a dyslexia specialist in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw district. “It’s important to understand that with appropriate and early intervention, students with dyslexia can become very good readers and be very successful in school.”

Under new Superintendent Kent Scribner, the Fort Worth district has made reading a top priority and views better identifying students with dyslexia as part of addressing a larger problem.

Scribner has said that only 30 percent of Fort Worth’s third-graders are reading at grade level and that his goal is to increase that number to 100 percent by 2025.

“We are underdiagnosing our students,” said Ashley Paz, a Fort Worth district trustee who worked with parents to improve resources for dyslexic students. “When you have that kind of disparity, it is no surprise that our reading numbers are where they are.”

The hardest thing about dyslexia is that you can’t kiss it and put a Band-Aid on it. ... It is going to be a lifelong struggle for them.

Leah Suasnovar, a Fort Worth mother of a sixth-grade student with dyslexia.

‘Changing the brain’

The Luke Waites Center for Dyslexia and Learning Disorder at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas describes dyslexia as a learning disorder in which people have trouble connecting sounds to letter symbols. The primary characteristics include difficulty reading words in isolation, difficulty accurately decoding unfamiliar words, difficulty with oral reading and difficulty spelling. Experts say dyslexia affects about 1 in 10 children.

125,741dyslexic students in Texas during the 2014-15 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency

There are many attempts online to show people what dyslexia looks like, including a web code that has been documented in news reports. That code was created by Swedish web developer Victor Widell to illustrate how words appear for people with dyslexia.

“It is has become not so much of a stigma to be called dyslexic,” said Karen Avrit, director of dyslexia education at the center. She explained that even though dyslexic students will always be dyslexic, they can succeed academically.

“They can become doctors and lawyers,” Avrit said. “They learn to remediate that and they get the keys to the kingdom of reading.”

10 percent of children are affected by dyslexia, according to Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children

Texas has mandated services for students with dyslexia since 1985 and is considered a leader in addressing it.

“We are very lucky to be one of the few states that actually has legislation that guides our public schools about how to support students with dyslexia,” said Youngberg, of Eagle Mountain-Saginaw.

Avrit said dyslexia is more recognized in Texas schools today because the state was at the forefront of addressing the needs of dyslexic students in the 1980s. All Texas schools must identify students with dyslexia and treat them.

Public schools can reference The Dyslexia Handbook, which outlines state-approved procedures in identifying and providing services for youngsters with dyslexia. Districts can also consult with 20 educational service centers that help implement dyslexia law.

The Texas Education Agency began collecting data on students with dyslexia or related disorders during the 2013-14 school year. School districts are responsible for reporting the data to the state. During the 2014-15 school year, the Fort Worth school district reported 1,173 students with dyslexia, or 1.36 percent of its 85,975 students, according to state records.

Martinez, who worked with Fort Worth schools to get more funding for dyslexia services, said the issue is complicated by the fact that the services are an unfunded mandate. She said the state tells districts: “You need to do something about this, but we are not going to give you the money.”

Avirt and area educators said districts are doing more because research and technology is helping experts better understand what dyslexia is and because treatments continue to evolve.

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At Eagle Mountain-Saginaw schools, classes start this year with about 240 students enrolled in the district’s dyslexia therapy program, Youngberg said. Students are continually tested for dyslexia, so the number of students in therapy usually grows by about 15 to 20 percent during the school year. Eleven dyslexia therapists provide help for students three to four days a week for about 45 minutes.

Crowley schools increased funding by $180,000 for the upcoming school year to pay for more professional development, three new employees and program materials.

Shannon Suess, director of dyslexia services for Richardson schools, said teaching dyslexic students means working with them to train their brains to process in an area that wasn’t processing before — an effort that can’t take place in a regular classroom.

“You are actually changing the brain,” said Suess, whose school district trains all educators, nursing staff and administrators to know the signs of dsylexia. Part of the training at Richardson schools includes simulators that let teachers experience what it is like to read with dyslexia and watching videos that explain how the learning disorder works.

‘A new beginning’

At Fort Worth schools, the investment in dyslexia services was long overdue, parents say.

“How come there are only two testers for the entire district?” asked Mary Jane Debenport, whose 7-year-old son, Austin, is diagnosed with dyslexia.

The Fort Worth school district has been in the process of hiring about 60 dyslexia teachers and nine dyslexia diagnosticians.

Debenport and Martinez were among parents who pushed for a increased focus on dyslexia services. Among top concerns was that it was taking too long for the district to identify and test youngsters.

“Dyslexia is prevalent,” Martinez said. “We are not diagnosing it the way we should.”

Katy Kloberanz, the district’s coordinator of dyslexia services, said her department is starting the school year with the theme: “Dyslexia: A New Beginning.”

The theme represents being able to address the needs of more dyslexic students with the increased resources and funds.

The district has already been working to train more classroom teachers in dyslexia awareness so they can better determine who needs specialized help, Kloberanz said. With 11 diagnosticians, students will be tested in a more timely manner, she said.

Before January 2013, the district only had one diagnostician. Since then, the district has had two — including one who can test for dyslexia in Spanish-speaking students.

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Fort Worth’s $5 million investment will pay for 60 newly created dyslexia teaching positions and nine dyslexia diagnosticians. Also included is funding that will pay for teacher supplies for training and for student supplies. The school board also approved spending $404,735 in federal Title 1 funding to pay for dyslexia intervention training from the Neuhaus Education Center for the teachers.

Fort Worth schools aim to expand training to help teachers identify Spanish-speaking students with dsylexia.

“In a given population, anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the population can be identified with dyslexia,” Kloberanz said. Students who have received the help have shown success, she said, adding that one was in the Honor Society and another was a salutatorian.

$5 million the amount of funding the Fort Worth school district allocated for dyslexia services in the upcoming school year from the general operating fund

“This is one of the largest undertakings that I have been aware of,” she said. “It is a huge commitment on the part of the school district and the school board.”

The specialized teachers have to help students learn while also taking the role of counselors and cheerleaders. The rewards give Kloberanz “goosebumps,” she said, describing how one student crawled under the desk to avoid reading and was later recognized for reading excellence at his school.

“These individuals truly have the ability to make a difference in a student’s life,” Kloberanz said. “It is a very unique and special calling.”

A lifelong struggle

Ellie begins seventh grade at McLean Middle School this year as an A-B student with plans to either become a veterinarian or open a bakery. Her past school accolades include being recognized for having read a million words in sixth grade.

Martinez said her daughter is a bright student who devours audiobooks. She has also learned that with hard work and perseverance, she can succeed. The mother’s own understanding of tapping into services helped her when they learned their younger daughter, 8-year-old Katie, is also dyslexic.

How can a student with dyslexia be identified? Referrals can be made from parent requests or teacher observations. Students are tested by diagnosticians and placed in a specialized program.

In kindergarten, Katie struggled with assignments. Now she has been able to complete her school’s accelerated reading program. She is a fan of the books Nancy Clancy Super Sleuth and Ramona the Pest.

“I couldn’t really do it,” recalled Katie, who starts third grade at South Hills Elementary this week. “It’s very frustrating if you don’t know how to read.”

Martinez said advocating for her daughters helped her become part of a grassroots community of Fort Worth parents who aim to hold the district accountable.

“We are a drop in the bucket,” Martinez said. “My concern is the hundreds of students out there who are failing. They are discouraged. Their parents don’t know where to go.”

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children is one of the nation's leading pediatric centers for the treatment of learning disorders such as dyslexia. Patients receive treatment regardless of the family's ability to pay. For more information, call 2

Superintendent Dr. Kent Scribner keynote for convocation celebrating teachers and staff making a difference in student's lives.

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