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Saving children's futures and saving money
Slydexia Pidememic

Can't make sense of that headline? That's how about 10 percent of the people in Texas feel every time they try to read something. The headline is supposed to say "Dyslexia epidemic." The letters are mixed up the way a person with dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes it difficult to read, might see them.

"Dyslexia can't be cured, but it can be overcome by a technique of teaching that allows children to learn in different ways," said Bill Hilgers, chairman of the board and founder of the Dyslexia Research Foundation of Texas. "Dyslexia is a phonological problem, which is a long word that basically means if you are getting a garbled image when you look at a word, you know there's a problem."

According to a Texas law passed in 1985, school districts and charter schools must test each student's reading abilities in kindergarten and first and second grades. If a test shows a student has a reading problem or might have dyslexia, the district must provide specialized training for that student.

"That can work in a lot of ways," said Casey McCreary, director of reading for the Texas Education Agency. "Each district is different. As far as the exact layout of services, it just depends on the number of students identified, the teachers, the district's schedule and other factors."

Each district's board of trustees is charged by the Texas Legislature with ensuring the appropriate services are provided, she said.

Studying up
Hilgers said students need a lot of one-on-one training to overcome dyslexia. Students need to spend an extra hour a day for two years concentrating on reading skills to offset the disability, he said.

The best approach is called intensive phonics, said Dr. Jeffery Black, medical director of the Luke Waites Child Development Center at the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas.

"The problem with dyslexics is that kids aren't able to sound out words or decode the sounds in words effectively," Black said. "The intensive phonics system overrides that in many cases."

Black says the hospital's learning center has helped prepare teachers by training them to work as academic language therapists. The center also provides more than 300 one-hour lessons on DVDs to more than 600 school districts in Texas.

"We have a really good handle on what the condition is, how to identify it and intervene," he said. "The challenge now is scaling up, preparing more teachers and identifying more children so that fewer fall through the cracks."

Costly for classrooms
Hilgers said the problem is that many school districts don't have the funding to implement comprehensive dyslexia programs.

"Schools just don't have the funding to do that, and teachers aren't trained to teach it," he said. "We need at least 10,000 to 15,000 more teachers trained, and nobody has seen fit to provide them."

One parent of two dyslexic children, Melissa Rodriguez of Pflugerville, said Scottish Rite's dyslexia learning center saved her sons Aaron, age 10, and Jeremy, age 8.

"The school district just has too many kids, so they can't individualize the instruction," she said. "The learning center did. The hour [her sons] spent there each day was worth so much more than the seven or eight hours they were in school."

Aaron completed the two-year course and Jeremy is in his second year. Rodriguez said Aaron's problems were particularly pronounced.

"When he first went in [to Scottish Rite] the only letters he knew were X and O, and that was from playing tic-tac-toe," she said. "The only letters he could spell with were the ones in his name. He knew you wanted him to write something down, but he didn't understand it at all, so he would just write the letters in his name in a different order."

After the additional training, he was like a different child, she said.

"He's not up to speed [reading at grade level], but he's reading books, and that is a long way up from where he was," she said. Aaron now attends Rawson-Saunders, a school for dyslexics. Jeremy is in his second year at Scottish Rite's learning center and Melissa is in Scottish Rite's certification program for dyslexia instructors.

Rodriguez said she'll hear parents saying the things struggling kids do are cute, or that they will grow out of it. She tells them to get help as soon as possible.

"Aaron came home from school crying one day," she said. "One of his tutors finally got him talking, and he talked about the things other kids would say and do to him. He had no friends. We thought it was just growing up."

The individualized instruction made a huge difference, she said.

"Now he's class president and does art projects and he's getting up and performing in front of people," Rodriguez said. "It's a totally different child. With the help of the learning center, telling him it's OK, they know what he's going through and the friendships he has with other dyslexic kids, it's really helped him a lot."

The price of inaction
The research foundation was formed in February 2004, and the goal is to make sure students like Aaron and Jeremy Rodriguez get the help they need.

"What we are doing is letting policy makers understand what it is costing not to address this problem, not only in money, but in lives," Hilgers said.

The Austin-based foundation's first challenge is to determine exactly what the disorder costs the Texas economy. The numbers could be staggering, since a disproportionate number of people with dyslexia wind up incarcerated or on welfare, according to an April 2004 report by JFA Institute of Washington D.C. and Austin.

Hilgers said the incidence level is 10 percent or higher in Texas schools and about 30 percent or higher in prisons. The students either fall behind or get put in special education classes, Hilgers said.

"They drop out or get into other problems," he said. "Some end up in the criminal justice system. It creates a psychological problem. They feel stupid because they can't read. It's psychologically deadening--children and parents are very affected by that."

McCreary said it's better if dyslexia is diagnosed early, though some students with the disorder aren't identified until after third grade.

"Sometimes it takes a long time to find out a student is struggling to read if he or she is smart enough to find ways to compensate for the disability," she said.

Books or bars
If even a small fraction of the children with dyslexia could get help, Hilgers said the state could save billions that could be put into education or toward other priorities.

"We [the foundation] don't claim to be experts on the technical side of this," Hilgers said. "We want to educate the public on the magnitude of the problem. From an economic standpoint, if you look at schools and prisons, the benefits of dealing with it properly is a ratio where for every dollar we spend on dyslexia, we get $12 back."

The news for dyslexics can be positive, however, if they get help. Black said there is evidence that dyslexics often have increased creativity and other traits that can translate into real-world success.

"There are many millionaire and billionaire dyslexics," he said.

Greg Mt.Joy