Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett and Deputy Assistant Secretary Kim Richey visited Strong Foundations Charter School during the 2018 Back-to-School Tour.
October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.
Seven years ago, one of my former students came to visit me and see the school I helped to found, Strong Foundations Charter School, a public charter school formed to provide excellent reading instruction to all students.
My former student was home from college where he majored in music and also played in two successful bands nearby. As we walked through the halls, he saw the elementary students working, some of whom were in Orton-Gillingham class—a structured reading approach to help students learn to read. I remarked that if he had been in a school like this, he might not have had to struggle so much with reading when he was younger.
His reply was bittersweet to me. “If I had been to a school like this, I might have been able to be your friend sooner.”
Translation: I might not have seen teachers as the enemy and schools as the battleground for so much of my childhood.
As a young teacher, nothing hurt worse than knowing I could teach someone how to read, but having them be so emotionally damaged from failure that they didn’t even want to try.
Time after time, that was my experience.
When I first began working with the student I quoted above, he was in the sixth grade. A bright mathematician, he had never learned to read despite his teachers’ efforts. Now it was my job to teach him to read and spell. For the first three months, every reading lesson was met with refusal and anger. Gradually, he began to have success and respond to my encouragement until finally, by the end of the year, we could accomplish an entire lesson in one sitting.
I had recently been trained in using the Orton-Gillingham approach. I worked as a special educator in a small private school in New Hampshire, and this student was one of many with a similar story. After years of failure, the first hurdle to help them overcome was their hopelessness when faced with the prospect of trying one more time.
I knew, though, that the English language is actually logical and can be taught systematically.
In my experiences, a multisensory structured literacy approach is essential for dyslexic learners and can also be beneficial to all learners.
At Strong Foundations, we accept all students at all academic levels, from low-achieving to high-achieving. Every student receives Orton-Gillingham instruction in a group as part of their regular education curriculum because we believe it is beneficial for all learners. We also believe it will prevent many students from ever struggling to learn to read. We work on building background knowledge using the Core Knowledge curriculum, a sequenced curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade students.
In the classroom, students receive Orton-Gillingham instruction at a differentiated pace. Students identified with a learning disability in reading normally receive additional Orton-Gillingham instruction at a therapeutic level, so it reinforces what they have learned in the classroom.
Our hope at Strong Foundations Charter School has always been that more schools would see our success and would use structured literacy approaches from the beginning of a child’s reading instruction.
I would like to see teacher-training programs include training in structured literacy approaches so that all elementary and special education teachers are prepared to teach reading.
It has not happened as quickly as I had hoped, but I am seeing some progress.
The story of my student I mentioned above has a very happy ending. I worked with him through ninth grade, when he let his parents know he wanted to stop tutoring because he wanted to learn to play an instrument. His tutoring time with me conflicted with music lessons. We all agreed that if he could maintain his academics without my help, he could “fire me.” He went on to graduate from high school, earn a four-year degree from a prestigious college of music and now works as a professional musician.
Beth McClure has served as the principal of Strong Foundations Charter School for twelve years. She earned a master’s in learning and language disabilities and a master’s in Educational Administration. She is a fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators and currently serves as its president. She recently joined the Professional Standards Board of the New Hampshire Department of Education. Her favorite professional activity is teaching reading.
The U.S. Department of Education does not endorse specific curriculums or approaches to education. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.