Waco ISD has improved its efforts to identify and serve students with dyslexia in recent years, but officials say many students are still going undiagnosed. A new state requirement to screen students earlier is likely to narrow the gap and add to the already increasing number of students identified as dyslexic.

To help meet the increasingly apparent need, the district’s preliminary budget for next year includes $165,000 for three dyslexia instructional specialists and more training.

That would bring the total to 15 instructional specialists to work with more than 300 dyslexic students across the district, said Teri Rinewalt, the assistant director of special education who oversees the district’s dyslexia program.

The number of Waco ISD students identified as dyslexic has more than doubled since the 2014-2015 school year and is expected to increase when the new state requirement, signed into law last month, is implemented. The law requires public schools to screen students for dyslexia starting in kindergarten, instead of third grade, Rinewalt said.

Despite the increase, the district is considered “under-identified,” she said. About 2 percent of Waco ISD students have been identified as dyslexic, but between 10 percent and 17 percent of children in the country have dyslexia, Rinewalt said.

Children with the learning disorder often have difficulty reading because they struggle to decode letters and words or process the sounds of words, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Treatment typically includes modified teaching methods and environment, and individual effects can vary widely.

The district centralized its record-keeping when the Texas Education Agency updated its dyslexia handbook and started requiring districts to submit data to the state.

Identification of students with dyslexia statewide has increased since, but not as quickly as in Waco ISD.

In 2013-2014, 125,741 students were identified as dyslexic at the state level. By 2016-2017, that had reached 154,399 students, according to TEA data. That’s an almost 23 percent increase, compared to an 83 percent increase in the district, from 131 students in 2013-2014 to 240 students in 2016-2017. The number locally is even higher heading into next school year.

Waco ISD has made several changes in its dyslexia program, beyond its record-keeping, since Rinewalt took over.

When she started in March 2015, she had several concerns with the program, including:

  • Dyslexia specialists were not formally trained on the dyslexia remediation program they had been using for four years
  • The district wasn’t providing services on every campus, and secondary students weren’t served regardless of where they were in the program
  • Reports weren’t provided for whether formal dyslexia testing had been completed
  • Dyslexia services were being provided in 30-minute increments rather than the required 45 minutes four times a week
  • Many of the research-based materials required to implement the remediation program weren’t provided to specialists, as required by law.

The number of students identified started increasing almost immediately when the district started resolving issues with the program through training across the board, Rinewalt said. Of 216 referrals last year, 160 came from the elementary level, and 56 came from the secondary level.

“I just think we weren’t asking enough questions and we hadn’t educated parents about ‘these are some of the signs,’ ” she said. “The thing that’s so hard about dyslexia is you’re talking to kids that absolutely, cognitively have the ability to do everything and sometimes more. They have the capacity to be so successful, but they cannot read. We saw that at all levels.”

Bell’s Hill Elementary School Principal Rebekah Mechell pushes for testing as often as she can, she said. She joined Waco ISD several years ago as an instructional specialist.

“It’s not going to hurt to see if they are or are not, and if they aren’t, that might give us a little bit of data to help them even more,” Mechell said. “If they are, let’s get them in that program as soon as possible so when they leave my campus, I know they’re prepared to go to the next campus.”

The district wants to identify dyslexic students as early as possible, but the focus is to get students started in the remediation program, which can take about three years, before middle school.

“We are not there yet. … If a kiddo fails the STAAR reading test in seventh grade, we’re obligated to provide a research-based intervention, and this falls under one of those,” Rinewalt said. “When our middle school principals were informed about that, they were thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, do you think we still have kids in the seventh grade that haven’t been identified yet?’ The answer was yes.”

Before college, Holly Dyer said, for a lack of a better word, people defined her as “stupid.” Degrading words like that can weigh on students and quickly become something they start to believe about themselves, Dyer said.

She wasn’t identified as dyslexic until she was a freshman at Baylor University, she said. Now, with a dyslexic daughter in Waco ISD, she’s glad to see the district providing more support, she said. Logan Dyer, now a fifth-grader, was identified as dyslexic in third grade, her mother said.

“She got brilliant with being able to read just the first two letters of a word and being able to get through the books. That was one of her masks,” Holly Dyer said. “Since she’s been in the program, she has more confidence and she doesn’t stress about tests as much. … The older you get, just like learning a language, it’s so difficult.

“It was to where (a professor at Baylor) would read all my books for English, and read all my textbooks. Then I had her on audio so I could go and do the work. Grades started improving, confidence started building.”

The district’s expected to approve a final budget by the end of August.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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