Thursday, January 23, 2014

Forging success for area children

Dr. Jennifer Williams leads Nixa Flight Academy students through an intensive reading lesson during one of the program’s specialized classes.

A partnership with Burrell and CoxHealth is offering tailored education to students with dyslexia at Nixa's Flight Academy.

During the first three years of school, educators focus on teaching children how to read – letters and their sounds, the differences between consonants and vowels, and how it all strings together to form words, sentences and more. But in third grade, the focus of learning shifts. Children begin reading to learn as math, science, social studies and other subjects include materials children must read to understand what they are being taught.

“If they don’t know how to read, they can’t learn the content,” says Dr. Jennifer Williams, an educator and dyslexia expert at Nixa Public Schools. “Instructionally, third grade is an extremely difficult year for all kids.”

For children with dyslexia this shift can seem almost insurmountable, and third grade becomes a crucial time not only in their education, but also in their lives.

Enter Flight Academy, a new program at Nixa Public Schools made possible thanks to a partnership with CoxHealth and Burrell Behavioral Health. In the innovative Flight Academy classroom, nine third grade students from across the Nixa school district are learning the typical third grade curriculum plus strategies to help them overcome the challenges presented by dyslexia. They are learning to read, and boosting their self-confidence and self-esteem along the way.

Dyslexia is a disorder that is often misunderstood. Many think those with dyslexia flip or transpose letters when they read – and they often do. But dyslexia is also much more. People with the condition have difficulty learning and processing the sounds of letters, making it hard to recognize words in print. Essentially, it is a disruption in the wiring of the brain, causing difficulty with reading, writing and spelling. In addition, it’s not uncommon for people with dyslexia to have coexisting conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which can make learning even harder.

“Dyslexia crosses the boundaries between the neurological, behavioral health and educational worlds, to the point that it falls in no world, and children are often left with no intervention,” says Steve Edwards, CoxHealth president and CEO. “Flight Academy changes that, and we are happy to be a part of it.”

The Flight Academy classroom is based on the Take Flight program developed by Texas Scottish Rite Hospital. The program uses intense, guided, repeated practice of reading strategies to help dyslexic children learn and understand the connections between letters and the sounds they make. The small class size makes this method of learning possible, and the “safe” environment championed by Dr. Williams means the children aren’t afraid or embarrassed to speak up when they are struggling to understand a concept.

“They are a very tight group. It’s not a place where they feel scared to say ‘I don’t get it.’ They help each other,” says Dr. Williams.

While a significant amount of class time is spent helping the children learn how to read, the day is also filled with typical third grade subjects. Dr. Williams takes a “dyslexic-friendly” approach, incorporating movement, rhymes and other strategies that help those with dyslexia better comprehend the information they are receiving.

“Everything is multisensory – that’s the premiere methodology for anyone with dyslexia. There is a lot of movement, we develop songs, we use all our senses to help with the learning process,” she says.

To address reading skills, Dr. Williams uses the Orton-Gillingham method. This methodology, developed in the 1930s, is a phonics-based system that teaches how words are formed. Students are taught the strategies and techniques in a systematic way, through sight, sound and movement.

“The Take Flight program is backed by a lot of research, and it doesn’t focus solely on word recognition,” says Dr. Williams. “It also deals with comprehension, fluency and all the pieces that are necessary to becoming a good reader.”

Children in Flight Academy have committed to fulfilling at least one year of the two-year program. Dr. Williams and the children will “loop” together to fourth grade during the next school year.

“What typically happens is that children progress in a slow and steady manner, and then all of a sudden they skyrocket. But that can be after quite a bit of time. Flight Academy is a two-year program so that we have the intervention time we need to see that skyrocketing take place.”

The program is already seeing results in improved reading scores among many of the students. One child has experienced a year’s worth of reading level growth in just the first four months of school. But Williams says the biggest improvement the children’s parents notice is their child’s attitude about school.

Studies indicate that 5-17 percent of children have dyslexia. In a typical classroom, that means there are likely two or three children with the condition. Often, these children are not identified as dyslexic. Their struggles with schoolwork are noted, but because most educators lack training in dyslexia, teachers simply don’t understand why these struggles are occurring. The children fall further behind, often feel alienated from their peers, and begin to experience extreme self-doubt.

Sometimes, they are referred for special education testing but often do not qualify for the program because the discrepancy between their IQ and their performance isn’t large enough. So, they struggle along, not doing well enough to truly succeed, not doing poorly enough to qualify for typical interventions.

“They fall into a gap. Our goal is to keep them out of special ed, and teach them the techniques and strategies they need to cope,” Dr. Williams says.

Thanks to Flight Academy, children who routinely experienced extreme anxiety about school, from panic attacks to mysterious Monday-morning stomachaches and even self-harm, now find enjoyment in school.

“Parents tell me their children don’t hate school anymore. They no longer come home crying,” she says.

They’ve also learned that dyslexia, while a challenge to overcome, can be a gift. Some of the most celebrated, creative, successful people in history are, or are believed to have been, dyslexic. Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison and many others were either diagnosed as dyslexic or exhibited strong dyslexic tendencies during their lives.

“A lot of famous, wealthy, creative people are dyslexic. The thing that made them struggle is also the very thing that made them successful,” says Williams.

Those success stories highlight the need for educators to reach dyslexic children in a way that works for them. If 5-17 percent of children have dyslexia, then there are roughly 600 students in the Nixa district alone who could use specialized help. The academy is a step in the right direction, but Dr. Williams and Edwards agree that education systems have a long way to go in helping dyslexic students develop their full potential.
The Flight Academy is the only dyslexia-specific program available in a public school in the state of Missouri. Schools in a number of other states have programs – some states even have laws mandating dyslexia experts in schools. Missouri lags behind, but Edwards is hopeful that will change.

“I think there will be movement in Missouri, but it will be slow and take a lot of persistence,” he says.

Edwards says he’s discussed the need for programs similar to Flight Academy with superintendents from schools across the region. So far, Nixa is the only school that has acted. Dr. Williams long ago laid the groundwork with district leaders, pressing the importance of the issue.

When Edwards, Nixa school officials and Burrell leaders first gathered to discuss the possibilities, they thought the program could be two or three years away. But a classroom became available, Burrell offered funding, CoxHealth offered in-kind financial support and Flight Academy was born.

“It took the three of us – CoxHealth, Burrell and Nixa Schools – coming together to make this happen,” Edwards says. “I know that now, nine kids are better for it.”