Chagrin Falls teachers stay ahead of curve with new dyslexia laws
Beginning this school year, Ohio schools face new requirements when it comes to screening and educating students with dyslexia. But the Chagrin Falls School District has been taking a proactive stance for much longer, Gurney Elementary School Principal Rachel Jones explained.
“We are way ahead of the game,” Dr. Jones said. “The teachers and administration have really approached it proactively.”
Not only does Gurney, which educates about 500 children in kindergarten through third grade, have 30 teachers engaged in five different, approved literacy trainings this year, exceeding the minimum hours for each teacher required by law, but have already been using a specific dyslexia screener for all students, as mandated in the new law, three times a year for the past three years and using a screener to identify at-risk readers for over a decade.
The law, which begins next fall, mandates new screening procedures and best practices to ensure that students with dyslexia are identified and appropriately educated at a young age.
Beginning next fall, every school district in the state must administer a dyslexia screener to every student in kindergarten through third grade, referred to as the “universal screener” or a “tier-one screener.”
“We have those assessments we do three times a year for all students and for students who appear at risk or who might be experiencing difficulty, we monitor their progress much more frequently,” Dr. Jones said. The district uses the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS assessment.
“The assessing or screening of students and providing programming - all the parts of these new laws - are things we have been doing for a long time,” she said.
The law also requires a phased-in approach of teacher training, with teachers of kindergarten and first grade to complete 18 instructional hours of professional development related to dyslexia by August and second-and third-grade teachers by August of 2024.
Gurney will allow teachers in all grades to complete the training together. “We just made the decision in our district, why not train all the K-3 teachers at the same time, especially in a small district like this where they might change grades,” Dr. Jones said.
To this end, the Ohio Department of Education provides dyslexia-training modules online for teachers to complete that would satisfy the 18 hours and also provided a list of approved training if they don’t want to do the modules.
“We allowed our teachers to choose their support in how they would learn this,” Dr. Jones said, noting that many have gone way beyond the 18 hours required.
Gurney teachers will have completed 90 hours of training in literacy instruction by the end of the year, she added.
“Teachers can take a mandate like this and feel very bitter about it being very forced upon them, but these teachers are professionals and looked at it as an opportunity to know more, learn more and do better,” Dr. Jones said, adding that some are even being trained to be trainers.
Gurney kindergarten teacher Justin Wise, who has been with the district for 14 years, said he is enlightened through his recent training by collaborating with teachers across the country as well as learning the new scientific research linked to dyslexia.
“There has been a lot of new research done in the past few years on language acquisition and development,” Mr. Wise said. “It’s really amazing to be able to utilize this new information to provide new opportunities for student learning.”
He currently is taking a course through the AIM Institute for Learning and Research titled Pathways to Proficient Reading.
“This training is to explore the connection between research, methodology (Scarborough’s Reading Rope) and best practices,” said Mr. Wise, who also has taught first grade. “The course explores improving our understanding of dyslexia and how it may impact a child’s ability to develop, process or comprehend information.”
Mr. Wise said every student comes into the classroom with a different set of skills and abilities, and his training gives him additional information about the known scientific research and new and improved strategies to utilize.
“It allows me to be even more effective with students in the classroom, regardless of their ability,” he said. “The training also provides us with valuable resources to accompany currently taught concepts, providing opportunities for all students to grasp literacy concepts and improving growth for all students.”
Gurney second-grade teacher Jillian Langer is participating in the LETRS training, which is a professional learning program that provides educators with an understanding of the processes behind reading and equips them with the skills they need to teach the essential components of literacy.
She said the benefits of this training in the classroom are immediate. “A great feature of LETRS is that we are able to immediately use what we are learning with our students,” said Ms. Langer, who has been with the district for 23 years. “It fits perfectly alongside our phonics program, Foundations, and we can use it with any (and every!) student, regardless of whether he/she has reading difficulties.”
She explained that, in a recent unit, teachers learned about which types of students would benefit from phonemic awareness and phonological awareness instruction as well as which activities would best support them.
“I am gaining a deeper understanding of how student learning progresses and how I can instruct students at different levels of development,” Ms. Langer said.
Although not required, both Dr. Jones and Chagrin Falls Intermediate School Principal Sarah Read are taking the administrative version of the training so as to better understand and evaluate the instruction their teachers are taking, which, in turn, better serves the students.
Dr. Jones said it’s important to not misidentify or over-identify dyslexia in students, with the district providing intervention when educators see students performing in areas that will be at risk. “It might just be developmental, and we provide supplemental reading instruction, and they take off,” she said, “or if not, we look at more intensive programming and work with parents.”
Defined as a learning disorder that involves difficulty in reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words, dyslexia was once characterized simply by people reading backwards.
“It is typically oversimplified by saying they read or write backwards,” Dr. Jones said. “There is a big umbrella of all different characteristics” of dyslexia. It can be language based or can include all symbol representations of numbers and letters.
“It’s really a whole master’s degree in and of itself” she said of understanding the various characteristics.
Dr. Jones noted that schools do not identify students with dyslexia as it is a medical diagnosis. “Schools can identify students with learning disabilities, so a student who has been identified with a learning disability in basic reading might be dyslexic if they were diagnosed by a doctor,” she said.
“The supplemental instruction and intervention we provide is designed for students with dyslexia, so we are already using the programming that would be recommended by a doctor.”
A small amount, about 5% to 7% of Gurney students, are dyslexic, Dr. Jones said.
“We know so much more today than we did before,” she said, noting that new brain research comes out every five to 10 years. “It informs the field of teaching and learning, and it informs legislation.”
Dr. Jones said that detecting and supporting students with dyslexia is important as they spend all day in school speaking, reading and writing, all of which permeates subjects like math, science and social studies. And that impacts students’ success in school as well as their overall experience, she said.
The third year of the law impacts students in fourth grade and beyond, “but it starts here,” Dr. Jones said.
With regard to what the district is doing beyond Gurney, Becky Quinn, director of curriculum and gifted coordinator for the district, said they are anxiously awaiting the 2023-2024 Ohio Department of Education’s list of approved Tier 1 dyslexia screening tools, which should be announced by spring, and eventual access to the state’s training modules for grades 4-12.
Those grades currently use DIBELS if a student is referred for dyslexia screening in grade 4 and above, Ms. Quinn said, and the Just Words program as a Tier 2 intervention and the Wilson Reading Program for Tier 3 intervention at the Intermediate School.
Intermediate School teachers have undergone training, as have those teachers across grades 7-12, she said.
As the 2024-25 school year approaches and additional guidance is provided by the Ohio Department of Education, Chagrin Falls schools will make decisions regarding additional training of their intervention specialists and possibly tutors in grades 4-12, Ms. Quinn said.
“As you can see from the work occurring at Gurney this year relative to training and student screening, we are being very proactive and thoughtful in this process,” Ms. Quinn said. “Our teachers are truly invested in training and preparation to meet the needs of our students. I applaud the outstanding commitment and work of our teachers.”
Dr. Jones shared that sentiment. “The commitment is unbelievable,” she said, including many hours outside of school. “To me, I’m just in awe over the teachers’ commitment to go above and beyond the training.”
Like with any kind of learning disability or even disabilities like ADHD, Asperger or Tourette syndromes, Dr. Jones said dyslexia is all about learning about oneself as a learner and what the student needs.
“We have got them at a very young age, and they don’t know what they need yet,” she said, “but we are trying to provide that.”
As they age, the goal is to “shift ownership” to the students as to how they need to learn, developing that self-awareness during their years at Gurney, she said. “That way, in the bigger picture, they can self-advocate.” That is not just important for dyslexic students, but all students, she said.