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.