School board ready to fund more services for students with dyslexia

Parents press for more teacher training on dyslexia, common neuro-cognitive disorder that causes difficulty with reading and writing

For the first time, the Palo Alto school district has concrete data on how many of its youngest students are at risk for dyslexia.

Twenty-five percent of the district's first-, second- and third-graders were flagged as at risk for the learning disability, which causes difficulty with reading and writing, on a universal screener administered to students for the first time this fall.

Prompted by new guidelines on dyslexia the state adopted in 2017, the screener was the first of several steps the district is taking to improve its support for students with the learning disability, an effort the Board of Education is eager to support — and fund.

"This may be the biggest lever during my 12 years on the school board of anything that we work on," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said at the Nov. 19 board meeting. "I think about what we should be investing for 25% of our students and I think it's a lot more than were investing right now."

She and other board members urged staff to ask the board for more funding, if needed, to successfully roll out improvements related to dyslexia.

For years, Palo Alto Unified had no clear picture of how many of its students have dyslexia. Dyslexia affects 20% of the general population and 1 million public school children, according to the district.

Dyslexia is defined by the United States National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development as a "specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin" that is "characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. ... Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge."

Dyslexia runs in families and often occurs in combination with other conditions, such as dysgraphia, dyscalculia, oral language impairment and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the California Department of Education guidelines.

The district tasked a group of administrators, an education specialist and school psychologist — expanded last summer to include teachers, reading specialists and parents — with planning for how to implement the state's guidelines locally, including through teacher training, early identification and guaranteed access to services.

At the elementary level, the group's work resulted in the district screening more than 2,000 first through third graders in October. (Kindergartners will be screened mid-year.) The test, called the Shaywitz screener, is a teacher rating scale of language and academic risk factors that indicate whether a student in these grades may be at risk for dyslexia. The results of this test alone are not enough to diagnose or rule out dyslexia, Chief Academic Officer for Secondary Education Anne Brown told the board in November.

Of the 25% of students flagged as "at risk, 239 students will be monitored within general education and screened annually." (Board Vice President Todd Collins described this as a "waiting to fail" approach and said he was concerned that the district would not take more proactive steps with this subset of students.)

Forty-one percent, or 225 students, will receive more intensive support, such as in-class instruction from reading specialists and/or after-school instruction. Seventy-three students were flagged for the Feifer Assessment of Reading (FAR), a more comprehensive test that can identify the form of dyslexia a student has, such as phonological or difficulty recognizing words by sight. Eighteen fourth- and fifth-grade students who are not making progress on reading despite support services have also been flagged for this evaluation, and more students in these grades may be given the test, Brown said.

A small number of first- through third-grade students tested were already receiving the district's highest level of reading support, tier three, and the district has notified their case managers of the screening results.

To boost the training of its teachers, the district has tasked Leslie Faust, an elementary teacher on special assignment, with overseeing literacy support for all elementary schools. She and two other teachers on special assignments will receive in-depth training on dyslexia-specific strategies that they can shared with other teachers. All kindergarten through third-grade teachers and elementary reading specialists and principals have been trained on how to administer the universal screener, and any new teachers in those grades will receive the training as well.

Elementary and secondary reading specialists, educational specialists and English-language specialists have attended additional training on how to teach children with dyslexia and struggling readers. The district will offer further training next year.

At the middle and high schools, a small team is working to "address the needs of struggling readers ... especially as it relates to identifying and scaling dyslexia instructional practices," Chief Academic Officer for Secondary Education Sharon Ofek told the school board in November. Principals are working to regularly share lower-level support services, such as assistive technology tools available to teachers, to disseminate at their campuses. Fifth graders with lower reading scores or who had been identified by their teachers were evaluated as they transitioned into middle school to determine if they needed more support, she said.

At Gunn High School, teachers are piloting a new tool that takes students through different reading accommodations, such as text shown on a screen and narrated by a recorded adult voice or a computerized voice, to help determine which strategy is best for each one.

Despite the progress, there are not enough trained staff members to administer the assessments needed at the middle and high schools, Ofek said.

"Lifting a plan of action from paper into reality often doesn't go exactly as planned, and in this case we are encountering some differences in our expectations around the time expected for screening and assessing students," she told the board.

Parents who spoke at the November board meeting urged the district to invest more in teacher training.

"I truly believe that the teachers care ... but I have doubt they are readily equipped to assist my child in succeeding in the ever-growing task that they encounter daily," said Laurie Baer, the parent of a sixth grader diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia, a difficulty with mathematics. "My family is exhausted. We no longer want to look outside of our district for supports that could potentially help our child to thrive. We want to look at you, our home base."

She said she spent thousands of dollars on outside tutoring and private therapy for her daughter, who has come home and said "she feels like one of the dumbest kids in the class."

Jenna Ellis, a board member at the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington, D.C., told the board that the California teacher certification process "does not require any coursework or practicum related to teaching students with learning disabilities.

"While they are passionate and talented educators, they lack the training to effectively teach the one in five," she said, referring to the statistic that learning differences, the most common being dyslexia, affect one in five people.

Kimberley Eng-Lee, co-chair of special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee, said that "direct, systematic, cumulative, multisensory, evidence-based instruction" for dyslexia dramatically improved her daughter's academic and emotional confidence. She also urged the board to adopt a policy on identifying and supporting students with dyslexia, as other school districts have done.

"We have an opportunity to be a model district and inspiration," Eng-Lee said. "Specialized instruction is just good education."

Board members were heartened by the district's progress on dyslexia. They suggested investing in more in-depth training — going deep and not just wide, Collins said — and providing ongoing support and observation of teachers tasked with using new approaches in their classrooms.

President Jennifer DiBrienza also urged staff to be mindful of the social-emotional impact of dyslexia and attentive to supporting students' mental health. (The district has dedicated a part-time psychologist on special assignment to working with the middle and high schools this and next year.)

Several years ago, Collins said he'd like to see the district invest $10 million in dyslexia efforts.

"I think I may have significantly underestimated the impact that early literacy work could have on both students with dyslexia diagnoses and other young readers," he said last month. "While we don't want to just throw money at problems — we've tried that strategy; it doesn't work ... I do think we want to think about what are the resources needed to really move the needle in a sustainable way at the level of excellence and fidelity that we think is needed in order to execute this kind of difficulty pedagogy."

District staff will return to the board with another update on their dyslexia work in March.


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23 people like this
Posted by Independent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Dec 3, 2019 at 10:28 pm

For years, haven't taken care of students, but now they will? Really?

6 people like this
Posted by PAUSD Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 4, 2019 at 1:40 am

Dyslexia can go undiagnosed so this is fantastic news. I made it all the way through a 4-year college without knowing I had dyslexia, I just knew I didn't like to read and didn't read much. Fortunately, back in the 80s, college degrees were easier to earn than nowadays. The school had checked my eyes in kindergarten and they were 20/20. But that is vision only. Dyslexia is different.

My son's reading comprehension was bad so I took him to a specialist in San Carlos, an optometrist who specializes in vision therapy: Web Link They gave him a computer program where his eyes could practice following dots on the screen because his eye muscles needed help following from line to line. My same problem was cured by me becoming addicted to the computer. All those 40 years of not reading much, and now I have no problems reading. With kids using technology these days, we may see less of a certain type of dyslexia. But the school district can buy those programs for these kids since vision therapy costs thousands of dollars.

5 people like this
Posted by Hmm
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 4, 2019 at 2:00 am

Dyslexia is common in autism too and we have a lot of that here in Silicon Valley.

Per Independent’s posting, our past superintendents were all cardboard stand-ups collecting six figure paychecks. Our new superintendent, Don Austin, has hit the ground running. Unsure if he was a part of this effort but he is making a lot of positive changes in our school district.

This is an outstanding idea, thanks to those involved.

26 people like this
Posted by don’t go overboard
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Dec 4, 2019 at 6:43 am

Please let’s not credit Don Austin with this.
Still lots to be desired with him.

12 people like this
Posted by Independent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Dec 4, 2019 at 8:07 am

Don Austin has asked staff to work to service special needs students in house. Translation - save money on serving students, and put that money into other pockets, the teachers'union salary demands and finance the bloated Pausd administration.

22 people like this
Posted by Childfind
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2019 at 10:52 am

"Fifth graders with lower reading scores "
Here's a big part of the problem. This district has a pretty high-functioning student population. Students with dyslexia could be struggling and compensating enough to stay in the pack, while suffering in all other ways because of it.

My student with unrecognized dysgraphia/dyslexia (but in hindsight pretty obvious, if they had looked for it at all) in Sharon Ofek's JLS, was crushed by homework every night, punished for the problems resulting from the learning disabilities, bored yet deprived of opportunities because of the impact of the LD's on performance and organization (which Ofek seems to equate with intelligence and conversely with belligerence if a child couldn't measure up organizationally), but compensating enough to never trigger the "lower reading scores."

Simply leaving the district, without even assessing for the LD's for several years, resulted in our child's standardized test scores shooting up to the top 1%. The district's approach to wait for failure, as Todd Collins warns above, was hurting my child's education, sense of self, etc., and without question would have hurt my child's ability to go to college if we had stayed in the district. It wasn't just that the district was failing our child, it was HURTING our child.

The thing that would have fixed it for us would have been a culture of working with and trusting the judgment of parents and students, rather than the conniving, manipulative, nasty, denigrating, snotty, retaliatory horribleness Ofek oversaw when we were there.

"I do think we want to think about what are the resources needed to really move the needle in a sustainable way"

A culture of working with parents and students starts with respect and attitude shifts, it does not require extra resources. What requires the most resources is insisting that all kids must be educated and judged the identical way, rather than adjusting and broadening the educational system so the kids are able to learn differently. In fact, letting some kids off the hyper-directed gauntlet we mistake for rigor here could be cheaper and result in a better education, and better ability to help students who wouldn't fail enough to get services per above.

16 people like this
Posted by Childfind
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2019 at 11:06 am

"with planning for how to implement the state's guidelines locally, including through teacher training, early identification and guaranteed access to services."

The district is acting like the state's guidelines came up suddenly from nothing. The district has been miserably doing nothing but fight fight fight families about evaluating and accommodating learning disabilities for years, spending tons of money on legal fees to intimidate families and deny services.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the law of the land, and includes the Childfind provision:
"Schools are required to locate, identify and evaluate all children with disabilities from birth through age 21. The Child Find mandate applies to all children who reside within a State, including children who attend private schools and public schools, highly mobile children, migrant children, homeless children, and children who are wards of the state. (20 U.S.C. 1412(a)(3))

This includes all children who are suspected of having a disability, including children who receive passing grades and are "advancing from grade to grade." (34 CFR 300.111(c)) The law does not require children to be "labeled" or classified by their disability. (20 U.S.C. 1412(a)(3)(B); 34 CFR 300.111(d))."

This link is good reading, including "Damages Under Child Find
What happens if a school refuses to evaluate a child?
Web Link

Got that district? You have a responsibility not just to the new students coming in (which is all this seems to be dealing with), but also to the thousands of older students who you have been actively screwing up, including those who families are angry because of how horribly you have treated them and their children and those who felt they had to leave because of your active discrimination.

Dysgraphia, by the way, is almost as prevalent as dyslexia, and there is cross over (but dysgraphia is not just a subset of dyslexia, it is it's own problem -- how many district teachers even know what it is?)

15 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 4, 2019 at 10:04 pm

Echoing @Childfind above, I feel that (respectfully) our district doesn't need more resources to improve its performance on this or other issues. It needs a culture of getting to work, especially at the level of the admins.

Stop obfuscating. Stop maneuvering and misdirecting on every possible issue at every possible turn. Stop playing fast-and-loose with the truth (that's as nice as I can put it), never apologizing when called on it, and then accusing your community of turning things negative. [Side note... remember just recently they claimed they fired the water polo coach for performance issues? No apology for a clear lie to my knowledge... just spin.]

Work with and for your parents and students. We may be annoying at times, but it's literally your job.

14 people like this
Posted by Cover up culture
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 4, 2019 at 10:05 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

11 people like this
Posted by class action
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 5, 2019 at 4:50 am

Don't believe anything they say-watch what they do and if they allocate competent people to implement. Do the right kids get help? Do they improve? My experience is sham bullshi! metrics and fullout fraud. They are spending 20 to 4o times more allon legal action than on fixing services and assessments. Layers of lying lawyers and staff. You want to believe it will be different but it's just spin and barriers. There is noone to hold them accountable - so they lie and issue press releases but don't actually effect a benefit on students. I like the racketeering label - shameless greedy crooks who willfully harm children out of spite.

13 people like this
Posted by class action
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 5, 2019 at 5:41 am

This is not a brownie point for PAUSD, they have been working on this for 2 years and even when they received the much larger budget from CAC, they originally approved it or nearly all of it then dramatically axed the budget to nearly nothing after the study/task force was done and didn't tell anyone that they reduced the scope to just a few classes, probably the classes with the VIP/liked families. It was all about visibility and messaging and not about actually solving the problem and putting a real program in place that can help the kids currently in school. It's more stall tactics, when you get them up against the wall, they say "yes" but just long enough to figure out how to say "no" again and for you to dismantle your resources, wasting everyone's time and permanently damaging kids. [Portion removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by Robin
a resident of another community
on Dec 5, 2019 at 3:44 pm

Reading this article brought tears to my eyes and a flood of emotions. I have 2 children with dyslexia. However Sunnyvale School District chooses to ignore the science and severity of this disorder. SESD is failing their students you can look at the test scores. Palo Alto I hope you follow through and also pressure all districts in the Silicon Valley to get on board with you. All children being literate is crucial to the work force of tomorrow.

3 people like this
Posted by Well
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2019 at 2:41 pm

@Cover up Culture,

Your censored comment can be found (before being censored) on the page I dedicated on my blog to the ongoing censoring.I copy and then post comments before and after they are censored  (only a tiny sampling) here: 
Web Link  (or search for: village fool palo alto before and after).

BTW, You are in good company.  Here's sampling of censored quotes. I titled this blog post:What do Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, George Orwell, Miguel De Cervantes, and Shakespeare have in common? All were censored by the PA online.

Link: Web Link search for: village fool palo alto twain Shaw Orwell have in common)

And @class action,
Just FYI, I decided not to post now the three censored words removed from your comment. These three words can be viewed as defamation or simple truth, if can be proved. I decided to postpone this Fool's ethical question to another time.

I hope you will see this comment, it will vanish soon

Villlllllllllllllll/\ge F000000o0000lL

7 people like this
Posted by Independent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Dec 7, 2019 at 3:11 pm

The district has been telling its teachers not to suggest to parents that their students be assessed (ka-ching, saves the district money by not giving services to kids who need them). This is corrupt, and actually stealing money from the Feds aimed to help these students. It is racketeering. And btw, it’s not caring. It is putting that money in their own pockets (and the teachers) rather than helping kids.

Like this comment
Posted by Davis
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Dec 8, 2019 at 12:36 pm

Forbes recently published this article about the tools that are available so that dyslexics can strive in education. The best way to overcome a problem is to identify it first and that is exactly what Pablo Alto is doing. On the other side dyslexics are living in a technical dreamworld come true.
Forbes- Web Link

10 people like this
Posted by ChildFind
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2019 at 10:46 am

"The best way to overcome a problem is to identify it first and that is exactly what Pablo Alto is doing. "

No, not really. It would be like the police suddenly announced that they just suddenly realized in 2019 that there is such a thing as sexual assault and that they have a new initiative in 2020 to better identify victims of sexual assault going forward (nevermind all the existing cases of people who have actually already been assaulted). (That is a hypothetical, by the way, because it's understandable, there is no connection to our police practices.)

Dyslexia is not new, and the district's recognized responsibility to identify and serve students with ALL learning and other disabilities is also NOT NEW. A proper initiative would not treat the situation, as the district does so many others, as if it's possible to be effective by ignoring realities and looking toward an impossibly idealized future.

The district has a way of reacting to its failures by lying, covering up, and at best, pretending nothing happened and promising that if they're just allowed to ignore all the damage they have done (and never identify and rectify what went wrong), then all will be well if they are allowed yet another fresh start. It's become how they deal with everything that goes wrong. We hear this every time there is turnover, a new superintendent, every time there is an investigation from outside, etc.: forget identifying the actual problems and seeking learning from mistakes. Let's pretend that those who do not learn from the past are never condemned to repeat it.

The district should be dealing with dyslexia, yes. They should also be dealing with other LD's that are nearly as common, like dysgraphia (which I don't see here, by the way). But they should be dealing with the realities of the ALL THE CHILDREN in the district, not just future children who are just starting school.

Unless the district comes to terms with the realities, and CHANGES to become a place that as @Sally above says so well, gets to work for ALL the children of the district -- dealing with the messy realities of life and actual people and their actual circumstances (that's literally their job) -- this is going to be just more good money after bad, more false promises that come around to smack some poor family with the audacity to believe in the promises of the law and our district's vision.

Teachers and admins -- and board members -- have a legal responsibility to children even if the parents don't know to ask for help, and even if those board members don't like the parents (just a, ahem, hypothetical) and don't think of themselves as being as petty and vindictive as the admins. They have had this responsibility -- and KNOWN they had this responsibility -- for as long as any of them have been in office.

For any new initiative to be effective, it has to be aimed at ALL the district's existing children, in a culture in which they finally learn how to serve the public and learn from "mistakes".

Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2019 at 12:09 pm

Posted by ChildFind, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

>> @Davis, "The best way to overcome a problem is to identify it first and that is exactly what Pablo Alto is doing. "
>> No, not really. It would be like the police suddenly announced

Well, it is better news than if the new Superintendent announced that he was going to gut Special Ed even further than his two predecessors did. Sure, let's see if he can really deliver something positive. This is the time to wait and see. I'm hopeful.

3 people like this
Posted by ChildFind
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2019 at 3:23 pm

"Well, it is better news than"

Is it? I have yet to see it work out ONCE when the district went about addressing something by pretending the past and present realities didn't exist and that THIS time they would get it right.

The discussion above gets that just throwing money at a problem hasn't worked. But there's still no suggestion of addressing the pernicious culture-that-must-not-work-with-families.

And again, saying that ignoring the vast majority of actual kids whose dysgraphia and/or dyslexia has gone unaddressed is ok because at least the district is doing this isn't really better.

Remember the last district superintendent bringing in a Harvard consultant? Whatever happened to that? This district is good at window dressing, we already know that. What about this restores any kind of trust or changes the broken ways of the past, or helps kids in the system NOW who need it most?

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 10, 2019 at 4:32 pm

"Remember the last district superintendent bringing in a Harvard consultant? Whatever happened to that?"

The report was a waste. Superintendent McGee resigned under pressure for poor performance, as did the then Director of Special Education, who had recommended the study and found the consultant.

While the district isn't perfect, the 2016-17 survey of most special ed parents (done after IEP meetings) showed 71% were highly satisfied and 20% moderately satisfied with their PAUSD experience. So it is not a disaster.

I'd be interested if you knew of other CA school districts doing a more thorough or effective job with dyslexia (or dysgraphia). This is a relatively new area for most of CA.

4 people like this
Posted by ChildFind
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2019 at 4:48 pm

"While the district isn't perfect, the 2016-17 survey of most special ed parents (done after IEP meetings) showed 71% were highly satisfied and 20% moderately satisfied with their PAUSD experience. So it is not a disaster."

Just curious - how was confidentiality ensured during this questioning? What were the questions? Was there any attempt at follow up later? Most people are happiest just after they've been promised something -- whether the something is provided when they need it is another matter.

And lastly, a 2016-17 survey, after years of the district pushing out and intimidating so many families whose children needed accommodations the district didn't want to provide is hardly reassuring.

If someone trustworthy (obviously, not the district) made an attempt to reach out to all the people who left because of how they were treated, either by sending their kids elsewhere or by moving, and THOSE people's experience was addressed so that they gave a similar feedback, that would be something else. This is also a survey of people who got the services, and does not include the people who could never even get the evaluations, the IEP, etc. Because I know how the district pushed out so many families, a survey that doesn't include them, and that doesn't include feedback from families after they see how the IEP's are implemented, and that doesn't include those who couldn't get the evaluations or IEP's, and that doesn't include children whose education suffers because they aren't identified at all, is really cynical to quote.

The district has a responsibility to ALL students. Imagine an insurance company printed a survey after a natural disaster, that included mostly people who experienced petty thefts and knocked over fences, and claimed a high satisfaction rate meant they did a great job for disaster victims. If you are familiar with the bad faith behavior against the disaster survivors, a survey like would come across just like that one comes across now.

6 people like this
Posted by ChildFind
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2019 at 4:57 pm

Put another way: How do you think it makes families feel, who tried and failed to be treated fairly and reasonably, or who pay crushing property taxes in the district only to be treated abominably because of a child's disability, to have a survey like that of people who got what they couldn't quoted to make it seem like nothing much is wrong? If even one student was raped with rights violated under Title IX, how would a survey of all the satisfied other people have any bearing at all except to try to invalidate a serious problem?

The fact that the district even did this survey is cynical -- let's get some data from people we're serving and continue to use lawyers and conniving nastiness against those we don't. It's less than meaningless. Seems more geared to help people who should have heavy weights on their consciences for the rest of their lives to lie to themselves about what they've done to nice kids in their care.

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