Advocacy: The Foundation for My Success

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Carla Priest

Carla Priest

Carly Priest is a rising senior at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she studies history and English. In her free time she dives for the Swimming and Diving Team, works in a local kindergarten, and writes for the school newspaper. Carly attends the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) conference as a representative for Eye to Eye, where she has served as a mentor, intern, camp counselor and Diplomat. 


Everyone has a different path to figuring out who they are. My own journey is far from over!  As a senior in college, I continue to learn about myself every day, but the ability to advocate for the resources I need continues to make all the difference. I share my story as a different learner to remind others who struggle with learning and attention issues, as I do, that success is not only possible, but critical. In learning differently, we have something unique and important to offer the world.

From kindergarten through eighth grade, I was seen as the “wacky” kid. Even though I was the “wacky” kid who had difficulty with spelling and a hard time following sequential instructions, no one suspected a learning disability because I loved to learn. Even with my love for learning, thinking back on my early education, I vividly recall feeling hopeless in the classroom. I had no words to communicate how I struggled!

My elementary school was a small public charter school that centered on a nature-based education model. The school’s kinesthetic and experiential approach to education allowed me to learn with my body, oftentimes outdoors. This emphasis on learning in motion, along with alternative instructional methods, ultimately mitigated my learning challenges enough to get by until high school.

Although mostly unnoticed through elementary school, my learning differences became apparent when I transitioned into a traditional high school. Within the first few months, my English teacher, sensing something was wrong, suggested we look deeper into what was going on. Evaluations revealed my visual processing disorder as well as attention deficit. It was good to finally have a diagnosis, but as I quickly realized, finally having a “name” for the difficulties I had always experienced was only the first step in the ongoing journey. Even though my diagnosis meant I suddenly received several types of accommodations, I still didn’t understand why I had accommodations, how they would help me, or when I should use them. I still needed to figure out what kind of tools would allow me to succeed.

Things dramatically changed for me in high school once I became involved in mentoring a younger student through Eye to Eye. Eye to Eye is a nonprofit, art-based mentoring program for students with learning and attention issues. Each art project focuses on developing students’ self-esteem, self-advocacy skills, and helping them understand how they learn and what they need to succeed.

More than anything, mentoring with Eye to Eye taught me so much more about myself. I learned that different accommodations could be helpful in different situations. I started to understand that extended time on tests was important, but in my case, it was far more important to have a testing environment with limited distractions. I looked for strong allies at school and found them. When I realized I processed information much better if my body was in motion, a psychology teacher encouraged me to walk around the back of the classroom during lectures, and would toss me baseballs to keep me focused and engaged in class. With these newfound allies, I was able to explore new ways of learning. With newfound confidence, I embraced my capacity to think differently, and began to explain to others what my “labels” meant. If I could self-advocate, success in college would not only be possible, but (as my allies assured me) inevitable.

Research shows that self-awareness and self-understanding are keys to success for young adults with learning and attention issues. A Student Voices study by the National Center for Learning Disabilities shows that young adults with learning and attention issues who are successful after high school have three things in common: a supportive home life, a strong sense of self-confidence, and a strong connection to friends and community. My community of support and allies, including my family, Eye to Eye, and my teachers, helped me develop and grow in these areas.

Now that I am in college, advocating for myself has become more important than ever. I speak to each professor about which accommodations I need and when I’ll need them. I am able to customize learning in a way that works for me. In addition to college, I have even had opportunities get involved in advocacy on a larger scale through an internship with the U.S. Department of Education as well as working with the National Center for Learning Disabilities in the areas of self-advocacy and personalized learning.

As I began to understand how I learned differently and developed the ability to communicate those differences to others, I laid a foundation for my future. Every learner should have the same opportunity to understand how they learn differently and embrace those differences. If we do not help our students access the resources they need, we will lose out on the intelligence, creativity, and passion of so many students with learning and attention issues who fail to see their future as one full of opportunities for success.


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.

Carla Priest
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A student at College of the Holy Cross and a Diplomat with Eye to Eye

Our Highs are Higher

Carrie Woodcock and her family posing in front of a lovely rural stream

Carrie Woodcock and family

Carrie Woodcock is director of the Maine Parent Federation and a parent of 10-year-old Sami who has Down syndrome.


This summer, I attended a conference alongside doctors, nurses, physician assistants, therapists and other medical professionals, all of whom work with children with special healthcare needs and disabilities. I was there to represent parent voices as the director of the Maine Parent Federation, an OSEP-funded Parent Information Center. I am a big supporter of, and was very excited for, the keynote presenter that day, Dr. Brian Skotko.

Dr. Skotko is a genetic specialist and co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Down Syndrome Program. He has also gone on to facilitate the creation of many such clinical programs throughout Massachusetts. I was first introduced to him at the annual Massachusetts Down Syndrome Conference. I was so impressed with our first encounter that now, whenever I attend events at which he’s speaking, I always attend his sessions—regardless of their subject matter—and  always walk away having learned something new.

At the conference we attended this summer, Dr. Skotko discussed the impact of a Down syndrome diagnosis on the immediate family. He and his staff had conducted some of the first surveys of parents, siblings and individuals with Down syndrome. To say that I was thrilled that a physician and sibling of an individual with Down syndrome himself took this opportunity to raise awareness for family engagement, a crucial subject many times overlooked by medical professionals, was an understatement. His data were brought to life by his personal experiences, and were overwhelmingly positive. They indicated that a large majority of surveyed immediate family members love and are proud of their family member with Down syndrome.

During a question and answer period following the presentation, a professional in the front of the room challenged some of the data Dr. Skotko had presented. She brought to his attention that perhaps the data were positively skewed because parents and family members would have guilt associated with speaking negatively about their experiences and, ultimately, their own family member. Well, I am not one to hold my tongue, but I did have to pause to ensure I reigned in my “mommy” emotions and represented the parent voice in an assertive yet positive way.

In that moment, memories from my 10 years of being a mom to my precious gift rushed back. Some of the first feelings to come back to me were those that I have been ashamed to admit as a parent. For example, the diagnosis at my daughter’s birth had me thinking that I would always be a parent to a child living at home. The hours in the hospital enduring her open heart surgeries had brought me emotionally to my knees, wishing my child was healthy. I recalled the times her anxiety caused bathroom accidents in public places, which had me wishing for normalcy. Listening to friends talk about their gifted and talented children had me feeling like an outsider. I remember feeling sad because the birthday party and play date invites were few and far between, if at all. For a second I thought that maybe this woman was right; maybe I do sugar coat my family’s reality because I am too ashamed to admit otherwise.

But in the next moment, I saw Sami’s hand reaching for my mom’s face, days after open heart surgery. This was the first expression of her personality shining through. I remembered my toddler son translating her words and being so proud that he was the only one who could understand her. We celebrated her first everything and then celebrated her first everything all over again when she regained a lost skill. I recalled the way that, no matter where we are, she makes people smile, no matter what kind of day they may be having. And the oh-so-many little things in life I would have completely overlooked were it not for her.

I gathered my thoughts, raised my hand, and explained this concept to the group. In fact, the professional that asked the question was right; the challenges are hard and often. We do have doubts about our ability to parent and yes, horrifyingly enough, we will ask “why me?”

However, we celebrate and appreciate all that is positive. We do this in a way that is bigger than any outsider could know, and we do it time and time again. The impact has been so positive—my family completely changed for the better the moment Sami came into our lives. In addition to the daily joy we experience with her, all of us are dedicated to her cause, and the cause of others. My professional career has shifted from sales and marketing to assisting families with their own special loved ones. My husband, who was and still is a physical education teacher, has brought her spirit to the way he interacts with his students, including those with special needs. Lastly, but perhaps my proudest family accomplishment, is how Sami refers to her 13-year-old brother as her hero. No matter the circumstance, he shows no embarrassment towards her, only love and admiration.

I summed up my comments that afternoon, and I’ll leave the same simple thought for you here. “You see, our lows may be lower at times, but our highs are more often, and they are always so much higher. We wouldn’t dream of trading it for anything!”


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.

Carrie Woodcock and daughter, Sami.
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Director of the Maine Parent Federation and a parent of 10-year-old Sami who has Down syndrome.

Helping Youth Meet Their PROMISE

PROMISE: Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income

What is PROMISE?

Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income (PROMISE) is a five-year research project that advances employment and postsecondary education outcomes for 14–16 year old youth who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). PROMISE began October 1, 2013 and will continue until September 30, 2018. The program is an interagency collaboration of the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Social Security Administration. Under this competitive grant program, state agencies have partnered to develop and implement model demonstration projects (MDPs) that provide coordinated services and supports designed to improve the education and career outcomes of children with disabilities receiving SSI, including services and supports to their families.

2017 represents the fourth year of the projects (the first year was primarily dedicated to recruitment and enrollment). Thanks to the ongoing efforts to support families and youth, we look forward to hearing about bright future outcomes for the thousands of youth and families being served by PROMISE.

Further information is available at the PROMISE TA Center:

PROMISE TA Center logo

 

PROMISE Success Stories

Model Demonstration Project Success Stories

The PROMISE MDPs were created to facilitate a positive impact on long-term employment and educational outcomes by reducing reliance on SSI, providing better outcomes for adults, and improved service delivery by states for youth and families receiving SSI. The six MDPs are comprised of 11 states:

Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), projects are coordinating with vocational rehabilitation agencies so that youth are receiving pre-employment transition services, to include paid employment. By April 30, 2016, the MDPs recruited a total of 13,444 youth and their families with half of them receiving intervention services targeted around improving outcomes in employment and postsecondary education.

Personal PROMISE Success Stories

Cody—a Youth with Promise

Wisconsin PROMISE

Cody is excelling as a student at Burlington High School and employee at McDonalds. He plays video games, rides bike, and is learning to drive and weld. His goal is to be a welder after college. Cody was born with a brain tumor and has just one hand, but that’s not stopping him.

He’s a youth with Promise, on a journey to achieve his personal, educational, and career goals.

Watch Cody’s story on YouTube.

Xavi’s Story: Youth with Promise

Wisconsin PROMISE

She’s like most #teenagers… she hangs with her cats, dances with her friends, and loves Criminal Minds. She’s also going to have a lung removed. She’s a youth with Wisconsin Promise, on a journey to achieve her personal, educational, and career goals. Xavi shares her dreams, challenges, and the steps she’s taking with Wisconsin Promise to plan for her future.

Watch Xavi’s story on YouTube.

Dorian Shavis—A Firm Foundation

Arkansas PROMISE

As someone who expressed an interest in architecture, one of the Arkansas PROMISE youth participants expressed his desire to work at an architectural firm. Working with the local workforce board, Arkansas PROMISE staff set up an interview with a local architectural firm and secured an internship that resulted in the PROMISE youth and the firm staff learning from one another.

Watch Dorian’s story on YouTube.

More PROMISE Success Stories

You can find many more PROMISE success stories at:


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.

A Teacher’s Perspective on Advancing Dyslexic Education

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Alison Pankowski

Alison Pankowski

Alison Pankowski currently trains teachers in her New Jersey district in the Wilson Reading System and is an International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Certified Dyslexia Therapist. She is the current Vice President of the New Jersey branch of the IDA.  Mrs. Pankowski was a contributing member to the New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook, released in September 2017.


As a dyslexia specialist in my school district, I build the knowledge base of my colleagues regarding early identification, structured literacy intervention and essential accommodations for students with dyslexia.

I explain, often, that:

  • “Yes, you can identify students at risk for dyslexia as early as five years old.”
  • “Yes, teachers should provide instruction in phonemic awareness in second grade to continue to build reading skills.”
  • “No, using audiobooks is not a crutch; it provides access to grade-level text for struggling readers and levels the playing field.”

While it is true that legislative efforts in my home state of New Jersey have helped to bring these types of conversations to the local school level, there is still much work to be done to ensure that our state dyslexia laws, enacted in 2013 and 2014, are implemented effectively.

There are still many persistent misconceptions about dyslexia, and much of the implementation gap exists because professionals cannot act upon what they do not know or understand.

The truth is higher education often does not include coursework on dyslexia in teacher preparation programs, so local education agencies must either figure out how to build capacity or wait until guidance is provided.

But where would this guidance come from?

In New Jersey, I was invited to join a group of individuals tasked with creating dyslexia guidance. This group consisted of practitioners with expert knowledge in the field of dyslexia, including learning disabilities teacher consultants, speech and language pathologists, psychologists, higher education professors, assistive technology experts, parents and N.J. Department of Education representatives.

New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook

New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook

We worked together for more than 19 months to create the “New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook” with the intent to:

  • Build an understanding of dyslexia and related difficulties with written language;
  • Demonstrate how to identify and remediate students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties; and
  • Inform both educators and families in best practices to support students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties.

We met monthly to discuss how to best provide this understanding and specialized knowledge without overwhelming or alienating educators and families.

Our meetings involved thoughtful, often passionate conversations about what we had experienced or had heard from others around the state; both positive and negative, regarding how schools had chosen to implement the laws passed by the state.

Usually these discussions resulted in written revisions to chapters drafted on early screening, intervention, assessment, accommodations and assistive technology. These discussions then led to more discussions and more revisions!

As committee members with experience in the field, we met with educators and families across the state throughout the process to learn more about what guidance they were seeking and to assure them that it would be coming soon. We worked diligently to craft a resource that would provide best practices to meet the needs of their struggling readers.

The N.J. Department of Education released “The New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook: A Guide to Early Literacy Development & Reading Struggles” Sept. 25, 2017—just in time for Dyslexia Awareness Month in October.

My hope is that this handbook will be a giant step forward in closing the gap between the research on dyslexia and the implementation of best practices in the school and classroom.


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.

Alison Pankowski
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Alison Pankowski is an International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Certified Dyslexia Therapist and is the current Vice President of the New Jersey branch of the IDA.

Things People Say

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Jessica Wilson and her son, Jasper

Jessica Wilson and her son, Jasper

A guest blog by Jessica Wilson. Jessica and her son, Jasper (aka Jaz, Jazzy, the JazMaster, or Dude!), live in a cozy house of fur with two crazy dogs and two lazy cats. Their favorite activities include singing movie hits, dancing in the kitchen, snuggling and traveling the world together. Jessica is Director of Communication and Dissemination for the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) and Resources for Access, Independence and Self-Employment (RAISE) projects with the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) in New Jersey.


Number One. “Did you know?”

They never complete the thought, as if just looking at him implies what they’re really asking. I ache to play dumb: Know what? That he would almost never cry as a baby and be a champion sleeper? That he would love to swim but hate to play soccer? That I could love him ‘til it hurts and still get so annoyed by some of his antics? As obnoxious as my brain screams for me to be, I simply answer, “No. After losing the first one, I didn’t want to take any chances with this very wanted baby.”

The mention of my previous sorrow precludes them from saying anything directly about those tests, so I leave it at that. I resist ranting about warped concepts of perfection or the technologies the medical community pushes that are incapable of measuring the value of those born “dappled.” If I launch into my diatribe, their eyes glaze over as they nod in the faux agreement children give their parents when they just want the scolding to stop. I can always tell when they’re thinking, “I would have the test.” I couldn’t guess what they would do if it were positive.

Number Two. “My sister’s/cousin’s/brother-in-law’s/landlord’s daughter/nephew/classmate/neighbor is ‘like him’.”

What, rakishly handsome? Lucky them. A consummate flirt? Better watch out! The self-appointed town mayor, greeting every person or animal we see on the streets? Good luck getting anywhere quickly with such a gregarious kid.

I suppose it’s an attempt to connect, a way to say “he’s okay” because they know someone who knows someone who… But sharing an extra chromosome doesn’t make anyone like someone else any more than two people having green eyes does. Don’t tell me these six-degrees individuals are “like” each other. They aren’t.

Number Three. “He’s so high-functioning.”

Yeah, far more than I am at 3:00 a.m. “MOMMY!” “urgh…?” “WHY ARE YOUR EYES CLOSED?!” “I’m sleeping, baby.” “WHY?!” “unnnhhh…” “READ TO ME!!!!” (seriously?)

Number Four. “Funny, you can’t see it.”

What’s there to see? His almond shaped eyes that look through me as the spark of laughter flickering within them sears my soul? His cute little hands with that long crease across his palms holding mine, petting the cat, learning to write his name, wiping away tears when he’s mad? The orthotics helping reshape his desperately flat feet?

What exactly are you looking for that will legitimize him in your eyes? Maybe I should carry the envelope with the verdict handed down by some anonymous technician. Perhaps the letter from the state when the lab automatically reported his existence to the county health department “for statistical purposes.” What can’t you see? He’s a kid, growing up loved. What else are you looking for?

Number Five. “I’m sorry.”

You should be. You’ll never hear the thoughts he speaks to me with his smiling brown eyes as he tilts his forehead to rest against mine. You’ll never drink in the heat that radiates from his head or taste his soft hair on your lips. You’ll never be awakened (again) at 3:00 a.m. by the hot air from his mouth on your face as he whispers, “Mommy, I want snuggles.” You’ll never know how it feels to celebrate every jump forward in development that other parents take for granted, but when he finally does it, it’s a very, very large molehill.

You should be sorry that you can only see back in time. This is a new era with new opportunities and new ideas about potential and worthiness. I’m only sorry it’s taken this long and that we still have so far to go.

Number Six. “That’s awesome!”

Thanks, Brian—you are the right kind of friend. May everyone with a kid “like mine” know a man like you.

Number Seven. “I don’t know how you do it.”

I’m his mother. Still confused?

Things I Say.

“I’m so proud of you.” “Boy, you’re handsome!” “Why won’t you let me cut your nails?” “TURN THAT DOWN!” “Wanna go bowling?” “Sweetheart, don’t let the dog beg like that.” “Would you please put this stuff away?” “You’re just too good to be true/Can’t take my eyes off of you.” “No, I don’t want to smell your feet.” “I love you, my sweet angel. You’re my heart and soul, my love and my life.” “You know you drive me nuts, right?”

Number One.

“I’ve loved my son since before he was ever born. What else is there to say?”


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.

From Daughter’s Advocate to National Advisory Board Member

One mother brings personal experience to the new
National Center for Improving Literacy

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Schultz is co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Maryland and previously worked as a Congressional Staffer for Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and later as the Director of Federal and State Government Relations for a national trade association in Washington, D.C. She has a background in public policy and consulted for a Florida-based public relations firm for many years before “retiring” to focus on dyslexia advocacy to help children who struggle to read, write and spell in public school. She has two children, one a senior at Leonardtown High School and the other a junior at the U.S. Military Academy. Her husband is active duty Navy and they are a proud military family


Something was wrong, but no one could quite figure out what to call it.

At age three, my daughter Catherine spoke very few words compared to her brother. Early evaluations revealed that she needed speech and occupational therapy services.

Catherine displayed behavioral issues including aggression, which the school psychologist later attributed to possibly too much stimulation. At other times, she was withdrawn. She was held back in preschool because of these issues.

When she entered kindergarten, Catherine had meltdowns because of her frustrations with language.

What I saw was her having difficulty finding words and using incorrect language, which resulted in a scrambled output of the words she could find.

After three years in preschool and a year of kindergarten, she could not identify her letters and sounds, write her own name or spell simple words. I felt strongly that we were looking at a reading problem, and my advocacy finally resulted in her being found eligible for special education as a child with a “specific learning disability.”

As Catherine prepared to enter first grade at age seven, I was frightened and frustrated feeling that my child was in crisis and it did not seem that the district’s special education personnel knew how to address her reading and writing needs.

The years of pull-out services, small-group instruction and reading interventions produced few results.

Unfortunately it would take another six years from the time she was identified as having a “specific learning disability” before we understood her specific learning disability was dyslexia.

One year her teacher pulled me aside to share the Patricia Polacco book, “Thank you, Mr. Falker” and encouraged me to read it to Catherine. It was the first time anyone almost mentioned the common learning disability by name.

By fifth grade, our developmental pediatrician formally diagnosed Catherine with dyslexia. We shared the news with her school team hoping that we would finally be able to get the appropriate instruction in place for our daughter.

Unfortunately, we still found it difficult to bridge the divide between the evidence-based interventions being recommended and the programs and expertise available in our school.

By seventh grade, we had to move on to seek private reading and writing instruction for Catherine.

Through pinpointing Catherine’s dyslexia and getting her the proper services she needed, she is now a high school senior pursuing a certification in Computer Aided Design and Drawing (CADD), taking two English courses and making plans for college.

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Students like my daughter sit in every classroom in every school in every state. They are ethnically, culturally and socio-economically diverse. Many of these students will have access to the resources our family ultimately pursued and that is good, but truth be told, many more will not and that is a problem.

Unidentified dyslexia often creates social and emotional difficulties for struggling children. Parents’ and schools’ lack of understanding and awareness of dyslexia and other disabilities can exacerbate a child’s struggles unnecessarily. I knew other families and schools would benefit from knowing about early reading interventions that included phonological awareness and decoding instruction—this type of instruction would not only reduce the underlying cause of a child’s anxieties or challenging behaviors, but would also teach them to read.

My family’s experience, in what I would describe as an excellent public school system, motivated me to reach out to other parents of children with dyslexia. I knew that many of these families were experiencing similar situations and that collectively we may be able to raise awareness and bring much needed resources to our schools and communities.

We established Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, a parent-led grassroots movement that offers awareness, support and advocacy for children with dyslexia, their parents and educators.

Through my advocacy work with Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, I was asked to serve as a parent stakeholder on the Family Engagement Advisory Board for the National Center on Improving Literacy* (NCIL), which was funded by Office of Special Education Programs in September 2016.

NCIL is an important component of the U.S. Department of Education’s mandate under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to support students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. The center is tasked with:

  • Developing and/or identifying tools to screen for and detect reading challenges early;
  • Identifying evidence-based literacy instruction, strategies, accommodations and assistive technology;
  • Providing information to support families;
  • Developing and/or identifying professional development for teachers on early indicators and instructional strategies; and
  • Disseminating these resources within existing federal networks.

Schools today are searching for information and assistance in implementing the evidence-based instruction outlined in ESSA and required by many of the new dyslexia laws passing in state legislatures across the country.

As I near the end of my family’s personal pre-K-12 journey, I’m excited to be able to offer NCIL the benefit of my daughter’s experiences to help change the way students with reading challenges and dyslexia are identified and taught to read.

It’s my expectation that NCIL, in collaboration with parents, educators, community partners, and reading researchers, will offer our public schools the information and guidance they need to bring the science of reading into their classrooms and to close the research-to-practice gap that sometimes hinders their ability to deliver best practices in literacy instruction to the students that need it the most.

This October, Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, is the perfect time to learn more about the mission of the NCIL and to spread the word to your schools and communities about dyslexia and this new research-based resource. Encourage teachers, principals and families to visit the NCIL website and make suggestions about the types of information, tools, trainings and resources that are most needed.


* The National Center on Improving Literacy is a partnership among literacy experts, university researchers, and technical assistance providers, with funding from the U.S. Department of 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.


“Voices from the Field” Interview with Nina Brown, Early Childhood Special Educator in Fairfax County, Virginia

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Nina Brown

Nina Brown

Nina Brown earned her master’s degree in education from George Mason University and is currently a teacher in Fairfax County, VA, where she has spent the majority of her career. Prior to that, she taught in Liberty County, GA. She has dedicated her career to teaching young children with disabilities and partnering with their families to help build a foundation for educational success. She recently graduated from George Washington University with a degree in education leadership and administration in special education, in hopes of continuing to support students and families throughout the county.


How did you begin your career in early learning and special education?

As a child, whenever we went to visit my grandparents, we would always spend time with my aunt in her group home. She had developmental disabilities and medical needs that prevented her from living at home. Even though I was only a child, I recognized the limited access and opportunities available to her within her community. She was an adult, but had never attended school, which seemed incomprehensible to me. From a very young age, I knew I wanted to go into a profession where I could advocate for people with disabilities. I combined that with my love for children and eventually earned my master’s in early childhood special education. After 17 years of teaching, I recently earned an education specialist degree in leadership and administration in the area of special education. With this degree, I hope to have a broader impact on children and their families throughout the school district in which I work.

What recommendations do you have for improving educational experiences of children with Down syndrome?

I believe that high-quality early childhood education is fundamental to long term success for all children, but most critically to students with disabilities. Early childhood special education is often the “gateway” to the education system, and it has been my goal throughout my career to be a positive liaison between schools and families.

Two steps fundamental in facilitating positive educational experiences are

  1. helping families access community services and supports, and
  2. incorporating evidence-based instructional practices into classroom activities.

Children with Down syndrome tend to have strong social skills, so building upon those strengths to increase their learning opportunities in all areas of development is beneficial, regardless of their age. Teachers and parents should always have high expectations of the abilities of children with Down syndrome. Children with Down syndrome often know much more than they are able to communicate. The use of visuals and manipulatives in acquiring new skills builds upon their strengths as visual learners. Providing increased processing time and consistency are also instructional strategies that complement the learning style of many students with Down syndrome.

What suggestions do you have for expanding access to high-quality early learning opportunities for children with Down syndrome?

One of my responsibilities as an early childhood special education teacher is to transition preschool students into kindergarten, helping to ensure they will be educated in the least restrictive environment, with their peers, in the school closest to home. It has been my experience that acceptance of students with disabilities varies among schools within the same district, even though inclusion benefits all students, with and without disabilities. Schools may look at a label or diagnosis of a student to help in their decision making for programs and services. I believe it is my responsibility, and that of all teachers, to look at the individual child and their abilities first and foremost. In all aspects of my job, I strive to advocate for the needs of students in order to help build a strong educational foundation to make the most positive impact on their future.


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.


Understanding Teachers Make “All the Difference” for a High School Student with Dyslexia

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Carter Grace Duncan

Carter Grace Duncan

Carter Grace Duncan is a freshman in a Northern Virginia public high school. She is a youth advocate for Decoding Dyslexia Virginia who enjoys sharing her knowledge with students with disabilities about how accommodations in school can help create a pathway to academic success.


A teacher can make the difference between a good day and a bad one.

Actually, they can make or break a child’s entire school year by understanding what accommodations in a 504 plan or an individualized education program (IEP) can do to help a person like me who works everyday to overcome the impact of dyslexia, dysgraphia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

I think I am lucky to have been surrounded by teachers who worked hard to make sure I was able to be as successful as my peers.

I have had a 504 plan since the fourth grade. It’s supported me through elementary school, middle school and now into high school.

At the beginning of the year, I introduce myself and my accommodations through email. I think it’s important for my teachers to know why I benefit from something that most of the other kids in my class don’t use. The game changers for me include:

  1. Extra time
    Dyslexia makes me read slowly and work hard to decode words. This means that it takes me more time to take tests. Knowing that I can work hard and answer the questions correctly at my own pace is very helpful for me. I would like to be able to show my teacher what I know.
  2. Read on demand
    Reading and spelling are harder for me than my classmates. I can decode almost any word after my remediation; it just takes me some time to do it if it’s a harder word. If I am really stuck, I would like to ask for help to have the word or phrase read to me. It makes me way more comfortable in class to know that if I get stuck, my teacher will know that I really need the help.
  3. Small group testing
    It helps to be on my own or in a smaller group. If I am taking a test with the class I might get to the third question and someone next to me is finished with the test because they can read it faster. I’d like to be able to focus on the content and do my best.
  4. Technology
    I use my iPad to ear read (text to speech) everything I can. Eye reading is tiring for me. Sometimes, I use an app to change a handout to a readable PDF and then ear read it, if I need to. Normally, I just eye read the handouts. My iPad also has an app that will let me record the classroom lecture, if I need it. I don’t access the curriculum exactly like my peers, but the system in place right now works really well for me.
  5. Teacher notes
    I am dysgraphic, too. That means it is hard for me to put my thoughts onto paper quickly. I learn best by listening to the teacher first and then practicing what I have learned. It is very hard for me to listen and copy things from the board or write things down as the teacher is talking. I take notes, but I miss a lot. The teacher’s notes help me make sure that I don’t miss anything when I am studying.
  6. Advanced notice when called on to read in class
    This accommodation makes me feel comfortable in class. It feels terrible if I think I might be called on to read out loud without knowing what I am going to read. If my teacher wants me to read something, they’ll just tell me the night before and I will practice first. I am a good reader now, but I still get nervous when I have to read out loud. Messing up on a word like ‘began’ feels really bad in a classroom full of my classmates. That’s what dyslexia will do to me.

With the help of my parents, my teachers and my accommodations, I’ve created a successful learning environment for myself. Because I need to work very hard to achieve the academic success I’ve had, I don’t take anything for granted. I appreciate my teachers who have made an effort to understand me and my accommodations.

Teachers really do make all the difference!


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.


Carter Grace Duncan
Posted by
A freshman in a Northern Virginia public high school and a youth advocate for Decoding Dyslexia Virginia

Supporting Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile Corrections

Sixteen-year-old Carlos has just been incarcerated in a juvenile corrections facility for the second time. He has many characteristics that are common among juvenile offenders: he was raised in a single-parent household; he grew up in a high-poverty, high-crime neighborhood with negative peer and family influences; and he has a learning disability.

In the United States, roughly 54,000 youth reside in juvenile corrections facilities on any given day. Though precise figures are difficult to come by, it is estimated that the percentage of incarcerated youth with disabilities typically range from 30 percent to 60 percent, with some estimates as high as 85 percent. This means that in a class of 15 students, anywhere from 5 to 13 of those students are likely to have a disability, most commonly specific learning disabilities (SLD), emotional or behavioral disorders (EBD), intellectual disability (ID), or attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD).

Whether or not they are incarcerated, students with disabilities are entitled to the free appropriate public education guaranteed to them under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). More than 16,000 incarcerated youth were served under IDEA from 2012 to 2013. However, less than half of all incarcerated youth during that time, who were identified as having a disability, reported receiving special education services. Furthermore, students who receive inadequate or no instructional services are more likely to be rearrested and reincarcerated within 12 months of their release. Unfortunately, educators face significant challenges in helping these students meet the rigorous expectations tied to college-and-career readiness standards.

IRIS Center’s Resources on Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile Corrections

IRIS Center Logo

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) funds the IRIS Center, which has released a new module on youth with disabilities transitioning from juvenile corrections to school and community.

In response to these important issues, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)-funded IRIS Center has developed an online learning module, Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile Corrections (Part 2): Transition and Reentry to School and Community.

This instructional module includes a detailed overview of transition planning processes and practices at system entry and incarceration, as well as system exit and aftercare. The module presents audio interviews with experts in the field. These include the following OSEP-funded model demonstration project leads:

  • Heather Griller Clark and Leslie LaCroix of Project RISE,
  • Jean K. Echternacht of the MAP Institute on Community Integration, and
  • Deanne Unruh of STAY OUT.

The module also highlights the work of these projects, which have been designed to:

  1. identify strategies for reducing recidivism and
  2. promote the successful reentry of students with disabilities from juvenile correctional facilities into education, employment, and community programs.

We encourage you to explore the Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile Corrections (Part 2): Transition and Reentry to School and Community module. Here you will learn more about Carlos (featured above), and his journey through the transition and reentry process. Please also check out part one of the juvenile correction series, Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile Corrections (Part 1): Improving Instruction.

Visit the IRIS Center website for a vast array of resources on important educational topics.

Baby G — Spreading Awareness

An OSERS Guest Blog post by Felipe Martinez, a father of a daughter with Down syndrome.


The Martinez family, including Baby G.

The Martinez family, including Baby G.

We started with 32 week old twins. Throughout that struggle, we had no idea what was yet to come. Eighteen months later Baby G was born. Our world was about to be turned upside down…again.

Upon receiving the preliminary diagnosis of Down syndrome, I was in shock. I had no clue about what doctors and nurses were telling me, and I had not even had a chance to speak with my wife, Amy, about the newest addition to our family. Upon receiving the news of possible heart defects, the Down syndrome diagnosis took a back seat. Our next mission was to get Baby G to gain some weight to be able to handle open heart surgery. The services were not available locally, so we had to make arrangements to leave town for two weeks. After the initial confusion and medical procedures, Amy and I finally had a chance to sit down and discuss our future. The twins were well, and Baby G had recovered from her major operation.

Baby G has played a major role in how we are spreading awareness today. She has brought a whole new meaning to celebrating life. She is the happiest human being we have ever met. She is the most loving person on the planet. This comes with a slight price, though. She has learned that her charisma can get her out of tasks that she would rather not do. It has been particularly difficult getting her to focus on school and academics.  Although she started early education when she was two and a half, she has never had an environment with a structured program in place. She is now five years old, and is having a difficult time adjusting to a public school system that offers more structure. After two Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meetings, we are still struggling to come up with a plan that will help her focus and learn.

Collaborating with school administration, Amy and I continue to establish a routine that comes home with her every day. We try to do the same types of activities and achieve the same goals at home and school. We, as parents, sometimes feel guilty for not implementing these types of strategies earlier in her life; it may have helped her adapt more easily to the new setting. There are no regrets, but through our experience, we can help other families avoid similar situations.

Five years have gone by, and I would not trade them for anything in this world. I am the President of the Down Syndrome Coalition for El Paso. Baby G has pushed me to be her best advocate. She has also taught me to live in the moment. Most importantly, I have learned that there are so many families that share a similar story. Our goal is to raise awareness so that no other family has to worry about its child’s future.


Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Education and such endorsements should not be inferred.