The New York City Education Department revealed a sweeping, school system-wide plan Thursday to help kids with dyslexia — a cause near and dear to Mayor Adams’ heart.
Historically, public school students with reading difficulty had trouble getting their disability diagnosed, and had untrained teachers, advocates say. The mayor — who has been open about his struggles with undiagnosed dyslexia — and schools chancellor David Banks plan to change that.
Now, a new screening will try to identify kids with dyslexia, new curriculum and teacher training will closely align with scientific research on how kids learn to read, and new classes specifically geared towards helping students with reading disabilities.
“We are going to have the largest, most comprehensive approach to supporting students with dyslexia in the country,” Adams said Thursday flanked by students at Public School 125 in Harlem, one of the schools that will host a specialized program for dyslexic kids starting this case.
Banks acknowledged that in a system as large as New York City, with more than 900,000 students and 70,000 teachers with a range of backgrounds and experiences in teaching kids to read, change won’t come “overnight.”
But for parents who have banged their heads against a wall for years trying to get desperately-needed reading help for their kids, the announcement offered hope that things are moving in the right direction.
“For the past 16 years I know all too well the pain of trying to advocate to support my children to read,” said Naomi Peña, a Manhattan parent of dyslexic kids and member of a parent advocacy group that is helping launch one of the two new specialized programs. “We are finally starting to remove the barriers that so many need to read.”
In recent years, scientific research has shown that many students need an explicit phonics-based approach to reading has continued to mount. That’s particularly true for kids with dyslexia, who need extra time and support practicing basic building blocks of literacy like connecting letters with sounds.
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But city schools have historically used a patchwork of reading curricula, some of which don’t align with the research. Banks and Adams say they plan to ask all elementary schools to choose from a selection of vetted phonics-based lessons for their kindergarten to second-grade students starting next year.
The DOE has also rolled out plans to start testing students for dyslexia, which is often not screened for when students are diagnosed with learning disabilities. In order to get a definitive diagnosis of dyslexia, families are often forced to seek out costly and difficult-to-arrange outside neuropsychological exams.
Banks said that starting in September, all city students will participate in “literacy screenings” three times a year, and will refer kids who score below their peers to a pilot program to identify dyslexia. The screeners will start at 80 elementary schools and 80 middle schools. It wasn’t immediately clear if and when the dyslexia-specific screener program would expand or what it details.
The city’s plan also includes creating the DOE’s first-ever programs geared towards supporting dyslexic students in public schools. The first two, set to open in Fall 2022, will be housed at Public School 161 in the South Bronx and Public School 125 in Harlem. The programs will offer a heavier dose of phonics-based reading instruction and will serve as examples for teachers and schools across the system, parents and officials said.
By 2023, the DOE is planning to have at least one school with a dyslexia-focused program in every district, Banks said.
The DOE will also offer additional training and coaching for teachers, and plans to assemble a “literacy council” to issue a policy paper outlining the city’s approach to tackling dyslexia by August.
Kim Sweet, the executive director of Advocates for Children, a group that works on behalf of students with disabilities and recently released his own recommendations to improve reading instruction, said “we’re encouraged to see the Mayor and Chancellor tackling this issue head on. The plans announced today could have a transformative impact if implemented well.”