Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 29, 2013

Entrepreneur's fourth startup is close to heart

After twins diagnosed with dyslexia, mom develops curriculum, launches school

by Chris Kenrick

"First you build it, then you sell it," says Carla Rayacich, pondering the future of her three-year-old startup school.

An entrepreneur with three previous startups on her resume — two in medical devices and one in sick-child care — Rayacich is building her fourth out of passion for the future of her 11-year-old twins.

Diagnosed with dyslexia as kindergartners, the twins spent their first- and second-grade years at the independent Charles Armstrong School in Belmont, which specializes in language-based learning differences such as dyslexia.

But when Rayacich stumbled on a different teaching method that produced breakthroughs for her son, she decided to launch her own school for dyslexic children, operating it for two years out of her home in Emerald Hills before moving to Palo Alto last fall.

With space leased from the Palo Alto Unified School District, she now employs three credentialed teachers for nine students, including her twins — and aims to grow enrollment to up to 30.

The reading curriculum at Rayacich's Athena Academy begins with a method developed by Ron Davis, author of the 1994 book "The Gift of Dyslexia." Davis' approach steers away from traditional phonics-based instruction in favor of helping dyslexic students rely on what he says is their strength — a natural capacity to think in pictures.

Athena Academy, says Rayacich, has "gone beyond the Davis method, which is a very consistent approach to teaching dyslexic learners in a way they learn most easily and readily.

"We've put together other methods that meet the same criteria to create a completely unique program that's got different elements integrated together."

On a recent morning, a teacher worked at a table with one student while four others were spread about the classroom reading to themselves.

In the school's auditorium, another teacher worked with a student, and another student read nearby.

Teachers and students use clay to reinforce the connection between images and words. After writing a word on the board and looking it up in the dictionary, they form the letters out of clay to help students grasp that the objects actually are symbols.

Words that don't spark an automatic mental picture are especially difficult, Rayacich says.

For the word "the," for example, she uses a picture of a little person pointing to the next word.

"My son said he used to get slowed down by the word 'the' but now he speeds up because he wants to see what the next word is," she said.

Similar techniques with clay and other manipulatives are used for math symbols and other symbols.

The school also focuses on teaching students self-calming techniques as well as certain life concepts — such as time, cause and effect, and consequences — that Rayacich said can be more difficult for dyslexic children.

The school has a separate science classroom and a small library with books sorted into reading levels and offers the standard array of other elementary subjects.

Rayacich, who also owns a mortgage-brokerage business, aims to grow the school, which now has grades 2 through 5, up through the eighth grade.

"Our goal is for these children to learn how to learn and figure out the accommodations they need so they can succeed in a general-education population in high school and college," she said.

The $29,500 tuition — for which she offers tuition assistance — "doesn't fund the whole cost of education, so we have donors who have been getting us through this far, and we're searching for more," she said.

Rayacich said she recently hired two additional teachers for next year, even though she does not yet know what enrollment will be.

"I hired the three last year when we didn't know who we were getting at all," she said. "I know how to hire based on projections, just like a startup is run."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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