Dawson Wingren, a shaggy-haired 10-year-old with Coke-bottle glasses and a shy smile, is a study in what-ifs.
What if his mother, Sabrina Wingren, was less involved in his education? What if his family couldn’t afford private school? Or private tutoring?
Dawson likes science and rainforests, and even writing, though it took him years to successfully draft paragraphs because he has dysgraphia, a neurological disorder and relative of dyslexia that makes it difficult to translate speech to the written word.
He attends a private school attuned to his special education needs and is more confident in his abilities and learning, Wingren said.
Some parents and experts question how effectively public school districts handle these kinds of disorders.
“Dysgraphia and dyslexia seem to be the redheaded stepchildren of learning disorders,” Wingren said.
Wingren said she noticed Dawson struggling in school starting in the first grade at Hayden Meadows Elementary in Hayden. She hoped it was just a minor developmental delay. But by the time Dawson was in the third grade, he was failing six subject areas. He’d come home from school sobbing and feeling stupid, his mother said.
Wingren tried to get him an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is a document created for students with disabilities to help guide their education. However, the school psychologist told her that dysgraphia isn’t covered under special education.
The Wingrens’ story is common in the region and the nation: Students with dyslexia, dysgraphia and the disorder dyscalculia – which makes arithmetic calculations difficult – rarely receive appropriate attention, said Wendy Popa, a dyslexia specialist and co-founder of the Winston Center for Attention, Language and Learning in Spokane.
“It’s kind of like a black hole over here, and there are multiple reasons for that,” she said. “It’s a systemic issue. We have many students whose needs are not being appropriately met.”
‘Calls from all over the country’
Dysgraphia and dyslexia are relatively common. According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, about 20 percent of the population has dyslexia or dysgraphia. In the United States, an estimated 80 percent of all students with a learning disability have some form of dyslexia or dysgraphia, according to the University of Michigan.
Despite such frequency, some experts and parents say schools are failing students struggling with these disorders.
School officials disagree.
Schools provide services for dyslexic and dysgraphic students. But the level of special services parents seek are sometimes beyond what school districts are able or required to provide.
Spokane Public Schools special education director Lisa Pacheco said that despite the pleas of parents of dyslexic students, the primary responsibilities and goals of the schools and students’ special education plans is correcting the symptoms of the disorder, not the disorder itself.
“I think what happens is that parents want us to serve kids based on dyslexia,” she said. “We’re looking at how it impacts reading.”
Amy Clark, the director of special services in the Coeur d’Alene School District, agrees with Pacheco. She said the district will work with students with dyslexia and dysgraphia if the disorder affects the student’s learning.
“It’s not unusual for us to have parents with a specific diagnosis thinking that warrants special education,” Clark said.
Wingren became increasingly worried as Dawson continued to struggle. Though she’s a teacher in the Central Valley School District, she pulled him out of the public school system and enrolled him at Riverday School, a private elementary school in Spokane. He also goes to therapy at the Winston Center.
The disorders are neurological and the cause isn’t known, said Kelli Sandman-Hurley, co-founder of The San Diego Learning Center of the Dyslexia Training Institute.
“In the education community it’s definitely misunderstood,” she said. “A lot of people think it’s seeing letters backwards or it’s a lack of motivation or it doesn’t exist.”
On Oct. 23, the U.S. Department of Education sent a memo to every school district in the nation telling them that dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia can and should be explicitly referenced in IEP plans. Prior to the memo, many districts balked at referencing dyslexia or dysgraphia, Sandman-Hurley said. On Oct. 26, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Research Excellence and Advancements for Dyslexia Act, requiring funds to be devoted to dyslexia research.
“We get calls from all over the country, every day,” Sandman-Hurley said. “It’s the entire country. It just feels like it’s just your community.”
Covered by law
The disorders are by no means debilitating. There are numerous methods for treating and working with both dyslexia and dysgraphia. However, some students like Dawson – who are bright and competent in many ways, but struggle in others – aren’t able to access school resources. Some parents and advocates believe schools should provide the full range of dyslexia and dysgraphia education to affected students.
But school officials said that’s not the schools’ job. Who and what school districts cover in terms of learning disabilities is determined at the state and federal levels, Pacheco said. Additionally, budget and hiring pressures make it difficult for districts to provide the necessary resources, she said.
The district uses Journeys, a reading curriculum, in both general education and special education.
“I think the program that we use and the material we use and the experience of our teachers is exceptional,” Pacheco said.
Federal laws require schools to respond to the individual need of the student for qualifying disabilities. Dyslexia is covered by law. If they don’t have the staff or resources to meet that need then they must pay for someone who can address those needs. In Sandman-Hurley’s experience, parents often have to fight to receive those services.
Wingren doesn’t think the issue is black and white, nor did she particularly want Dawson to be in special education. It just seemed like the only option, she said.
“It’s not the teacher’s fault,” Wingren said. “Not really even the school’s fault.”
However, for her the result was the same.
“These kids with learning disabilities are really being swept under the rug,” Wingren said. “When I was going through this, I was lost, especially in Idaho. It was like a desert. A wasteland.”
Slip, slip, gone
Krista Poor’s story is similar to Wingren’s.
Her 10-year-old son, whom she asked not be named, was falling increasingly behind in the Spokane Public Schools system. He struggled to read and write. Unlike the Wingrens, Poor’s son had an IEP. This, she said, made no difference. The IEP wasn’t designed for him to catch up, she said; instead, it tried to keep him from falling further behind.
“All we wanted was for our kid to read and write at grade level and then get the hell out of special education,” Poor said.
The Poors removed their son and younger daughter from the public system this fall. Now they’re paying about $1,300 a month for their two children to attend a private Christian school. Poor said her son has all A’s and B’s and is expected to catch up within a year.
The family has had to adapt: She changed her work schedule to accommodate her children’s school schedules while they stretch their budget to afford tuition.
“My ‘free and appropriate education’ costs me $15,000 a year,” Poor said. “But you have to choose. Do you want your kid to be literate or not? That’s where we’re at.”
According to Popa, co-founder of the Winston Center in Spokane, the issue with the IEP system for students with dyslexia or dysgraphia is that the curriculum they’re presented isn’t any different from the standard curriculum taught in the district.
“What it is doing is giving a child second exposure to a curriculum that has already not worked for them,” she said. “It’s the definition of insanity.”
Teaching the logic of language
After a recent day at school, Dawson bounces up and down on an exercise ball in a basement room, yawning frequently. He’s been going to Riverday School for two years now, and enjoys it.
Twice a week he comes into the Winston Center to work one-on-one with Popa. She teaches students with dyslexia using the Orton-Gillingham method, which was developed in the early 20th century and uses a multisensory approach. Most dyslexia-specific teaching methods are derivatives of the Orton-Gillingham method.
“Basically I’m teaching them the logic of our language,” she said.
While many children, and adults, rely on systematically hearing the language to learn how to read and write, dyslexic children need to learn the underlying rules, and then apply them.
Dawson breaks words down to syllables and then practices simultaneously writing and reading the words under Popa’s guidance. He’s made a lot of progress, she said.
Wingren is ecstatic that she found Riverday. But she’s worried about other children silently suffering in public school.
“There is this big perception that these kids are getting help in our public schools,” Wingren said. “But the reality is they’re actually just getting chased out of the districts.”
One afternoon at Riverday School, Dawson described a story he wrote. It’s loosely based on “Seekers,” a children’s book that follows three bears as they try to locate the North Star. Unfortunately, they don’t know where or what the star is.
Like the three bears’ struggle to locate the North Star, many of the problems around dyslexia and dysgraphia originate in ignorance, said Kerry Jensen, a co-founder of Enlighten, a local nonprofit dedicated to informing educators about dyslexia.
“Our dream is to educate teachers and make changes in the public schools,” she said.
Jensen has five children, three of whom are dyslexic. Her husband, a doctor, is also dyslexic. When her daughter, Elsa, entered the school system, she struggled. This surprised Jensen because Elsa was verbal and bright. Jensen watched her daughter suffer through a year at Liberty Lake Elementary.
“This bubbly, happy person was starting to be beaten down in school,” she said.
She started working with her daughter during the summer using the Barton System, which is based on the Orton-Gillingham method. She kept Elsa in the public school system although her daughter didn’t receive adequate support, Jensen said. Elsa is now a sophomore at Central Valley High School, where she’s doing well.
“Yes, she has dyslexia,” Jensen said. “Yes, school is a challenge for her. But the instruction she got gave her the tools to have confidence.”
Dawson is catching up. Poor’s 10-year-old likely will catch up. Elsa is doing well. But Jensen wonders about the kids whose families don’t have the money or education necessary to figure out the problem.
Wingren, the Central Valley teacher, wonders about the kids who struggle in her classes. What if their academic woes are symptoms of undiagnosed dyslexia or dysgraphia?
“It’s disheartening when you think how many kids are out there and think they’re stupid,” Wingren said. “In reality they’re not at all.”
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