From left, Kyrene School District Superintendent Jan Vesely, Christine Burton of the Burton Family Foundation, Kyrene Governing Board member Bernadette Coggins and state Rep. Jill Norgaard celebrate the school district receiving a grant to help preschoolers with dyslexia.
Lauren Clark/Kyrene School District

An unusual grant will give preschoolers in the Kyrene School District help overcoming a common learning disability that plagues many adults and children across the country.

The in-school intervention for preschoolers with dyslexia is a novel public/private collaborative project with $100,000 in a three-year grant from the Burton Family Foundation.

The grant will let the district intervene with preschoolers identified with dyslexia, regardless of whether they qualify as students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The dyslexia intervention program will kick off at Kyrene de los Niños Elementary School in January. Kyrene de la Mariposa Elementary School will be the next school to get the support. Both schools are in Tempe.

Kyrene has preschools at 17 of its schools, with campuses in Chandler, Tempe and Ahwatukee.

Kyrene district officials say they believe theirs is the first in Arizona to carry out a grant-funded program to screen students and to intervene with students showing early signs of dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a neurological-based, hereditary language-processing disorder that makes it difficult to read, write and spell. It’s believed possibly 15 to 20 percent of the population has some symptoms of dyslexia, according to the International Dyslexia Association.

“We know that early intervention is essential for kids, so kids are not feeling that failure throughout their school career,” said Sandra Laine, director of exceptional student services for the Kyrene district. “We’re also excited for our teachers … to have this knowledge. I’m overjoyed. This is amazing.”

Laine, as well as Kyrene School District Superintendent Jan Vesely, several school administrators, state elected lawmakers, Christine Burton with the Burton Family Foundation board and Dawn Wallace with Gov. Doug Ducey’s office, attended a grant celebration on Oct. 17 at Kyrene de los Niños Elementary in Tempe.

“This has been a labor of love,” Vesely said. “I also have a daughter who has dyslexia and a grandson who has dyslexia.”

Kyrene Governing Board member and parent Bernadette Coggins, along with state Rep. Jill Norgaard, Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus, vice president of the International Dyslexia Association-Arizona Chapter, and many other people pushed for the dyslexia project.

Coggins said she knows from experience the importance of detecting dyslexia early because of her son, whom she noticed struggling in third grade.

“Our kids unfortunately have to work a little harder,” she said. “We want to provide a model that is sustainable that can be used across Arizona. If we can have the training, which we’re starting to do, the sky’s the limit.”

Staff members from the Wellington-Alexander Center in Phoenix will provide interventions to help preschoolers in the district with dyslexia, and then train Kyrene’s teachers so they can learn to identify and aid those children, Laine said.

Certified teachers and speech language pathologists will deliver lessons to preschoolers. The focus will be on “the development of language for those preschool children that have not developed language at the same rate as their peers,” Laine said.

“Parents of children with dyslexia often express frustration and concern over their child’s struggle to learn to read,” she said.

Norgaard, who sponsored legislation that led to the development of The Dyslexia Handbook for the state, said she has heard from many parents who said their children “missed so many opportunities” because their dyslexia was not diagnosed earlier.

The handbook provides parents and teachers with signs that a child might have dyslexia, as well as a definition of it. Arizona is the 15th state to adopt a dyslexia handbook. Lawmakers studied what other states, including Alabama and Ohio, did when crafting theirs, Norgaard said.

“We’ve put together a very systematic model,” she said. “We thought, we’ve waited too long and there’s no time like the present. Affecting upwards of 17 percent of the population, it’s imperative that schools begin to take action early to detect dyslexia, and I’m proud that the Kyrene School District is leading the way.”

Some warning signs of dyslexia that may show up during preschool are delays in learning to talk; trouble with rhyming patterns like cat, bat and sat; difficulty pronouncing words and poor auditory memory for chants and nursery rhymes, according to the state dyslexia handbook.

Research shows the quick growth of the brain and its responsiveness to instruction during the primary years mean the time period from birth to age 8 is a crucial time for literacy development, the handbook stated.

School administrators and others at the Oct. 17 event stressed the importance of children learning to read and write as early as possible, saying doing so not only helps them academically but prepares them for future careers.

Dyslexia is included in the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of a specific learning disability. Though dyslexia itself is not an eligibility category under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, if a child has dyslexia, it might lead to that child being considered eligible for special education and related services, according to the dyslexia handbook.

About 13 to 14 percent of the school population around the United States has dyslexia, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

“It’s a lot more common than we ever realized,” Niños Principal Tonja Yalung said. “This is something all of our students will benefit from.”

State Rep. Reginald Bolding, who attended the Kyrene grant celebration, knows it’s critical to help students with dyslexia because he used to be a special education teacher.

“It’s important for our kids to recognize we all have differences,” Bolding said. “With early intervention, we can ensure our students have the support they need to be successful.”

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