Group works to create charter school for children with dyslexia

Breaking down barriers

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A group of parents and professionals who are passionate about improving the education of students with dyslexia are designing a charter school to meet the needs of children in kindergarten through eighth grade with the condition.

The 25-member group will submit a proposal for Provident Charter School to a yet-unidentified school district in Allegheny County during the 2011 charter school application period that extends from July to November.

If the proposal wins approval, it will be the first school in the western half of the state wholly dedicated to addressing dyslexia. According to the committee planning the charter, the Philadelphia area has 13 private schools devoted to dyslexia and other language-based disabilities, although none are charter schools.

Charter schools for students with dyslexia operate in Boston, Rhode Island and Louisiana, planners said.

A building has not yet been identified for the school. The planning committee is looking for suitable sites in Green Tree, the North Hills and the east suburbs. The location of the building will determine which school district receives the charter application.

Dyslexia is a learning disability characterized by difficulty with skills such as word recognition, decoding and spelling. It is widely accepted that dyslexia is the result of differences in the way the brain processes written language. According to the International Dyslexia Association, 15 to 20 percent of the population has language-based learning disabilities, and dyslexia is the most common type.

Using IDA figures, the charter school group has prepared a market survey that estimates that 5.5 percent of kindergarten through eighth grade children within a 10-mile radius of Downtown Pittsburgh -- 3,136 students -- may qualify for admission. The planned capacity for the school is 320 students.

Momentum for a charter school began to build during a 2009 conference sponsored by the Pittsburgh chapter of the IDA. At a follow-up meeting, Curtis Kossman, a real estate developer who has two children with dyslexia and who has it himself, suggested creating a charter school.

Mr. Kossman assembled a planning team that includes prominent professionals in the field as well as parents of children with dyslexia. Professionals on the planning team include pediatric neuropsychologist Sharon Arffa; J. Kaye Cupples, retired head of special education for the Pittsburgh Public Schools; Barbara Jenkins, a veteran teacher with expertise in dyslexia; and Jennifer Marsh, a former faculty member in University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.

The name chosen for the school -- "Provident" -- refers to the school's mission of "preparing for the future," said Mr. Kossman. "We want the school to give students a toolbox for succeeding in high school and college."

The need for a dedicated school for students with dyslexia has long been a topic of local discussion, said Ms. Arffa. "I always said, we need a school."

"Regular schools have a difficult time serving children with dyslexia," said Mr. Kossman. His son, 9, and daughter, 13, receive accommodations for their dyslexia at the private school they attend, but it is not enough to address their educational needs, he said. "Kids with dyslexia learn differently, and they need to be taught differently."

Federal and state regulations list dyslexia as one of 13 specific learning disabilities that qualify students for special education services in public schools. Public schools are required by law to provide "free and appropriate education" for students with learning disabilities but are not required to offer particular intervention techniques.

One of the leading interventions for dyslexia is the Orton-Gillingham method, a multisensory, small-group approach that the charter school will use in all subject areas.

In regular schools, teachers of students with dyslexia are often frustrated by their inability to help, said Ms. Marsh. "Teacher education programs can't devote more than cursory training on dyslexia intervention because the population of students with the condition is small."

In lieu of specialized instruction during the school day, many parents seek after-school tutoring for their children. For example, Mr. Kossman's son and daughter weekly receive 10 and 18 hours of tutoring, respectively.

Mr. Kossman, 42, of Shadyside, recounted the extensive after-school tutoring he received for his dyslexia through Pitt's Education Department when he was a boy. "I had parents who believed in me and put a plan in place," he said. "But after-school tutoring involves significant out-of-pocket cost, and it's not a solution that's available to all families."

Even when cost is not an issue, the time demands of after-school tutoring are untenable for most children, said Ms. Jenkins, who currently tutors several children.

Another approach parents take to meet their children's needs is to bring dyslexia resources to their children's schools. Jean Ferketish of Peters, whose daughters, age 16 and 17, have dyslexia, provides an Orton-Gillingham instructor and a study skills coach to advise teachers at Ellis School about her daughters' educational needs. The support helps, she said, but the bottom line is that her daughters need the type of comprehensive support that will be provided in the charter school.

Ms. Ferketish's daughters, like most of the children whose parents are on the charter committee, will be too old for the charter school if and when it is approved. "We [parents] are involved because we know what a difference this school will make to children and families in the region," she said.

Children with dyslexia characteristically possess strong intellectual abilities despite their difficulty with language tasks. Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci are believed to have had dyslexia. In recent years, many well-known and accomplished individuals have spoken openly about their dyslexia.

At the same time, jails are full of dyslexic people, notes Christine Seppi, an Orton-Gillingham tutor and the parent of a son with dyslexia who will graduate from Carnegie Mellon this spring.

The self-esteem of students with dyslexia suffers when the condition is not adequately addressed, she said. "They feel stupid because they see everyone else doing something easily which they cannot figure out how to do."

Thomas Fogerty, president of ACLD Tillotson, a private school in Whitehall that serves 101 students with severe learning disabilities, said that Orton-Gillingham is one of several methods used at the school. "It's a good method for students with learning disabilities," he said.

Establishing a charter school may be a difficult route for the planners to take. Locally, most charter proposals are not approved by school boards the first time out.

Members of the planning team say they are committed to the process and hopeful about success. Pennsylvania law permits charter schools that limit admission to students who are "at risk" for failure for particular reasons, including academic problems. The Spectrum Charter School for students with autism in the Gateway School District is a local precedent.

"The benefit of establishing a charter school over a private school is that a charter is open to all," said Ms. Arffa. "That's important for Pittsburgh and the entire area. We hope the school district that receives the application will embrace it because it fills a need."

PEAL fouder recogized

Elisabeth Healey, executive director of the Parent Education and Advocacy Leadership Center and leader in the local disability community, was recognized in January as a "Dignity and Respect Champion" by UPMC's Center for Inclusion.

In 2005, Ms. Healey founded the PEAL Center, whose mission is to ensure that individuals with disabilities and special health care needs lead rich and active lives and participate as full members of their communities.

The PEAL Center's fifth annual conference on inclusive education is scheduled for April 11 and 12 at the Radisson Hotel Green Tree. Information: 412-281-4404 or

Tina Calabro of Highland Park covers disability issues for the Post-Gazette. Contact her at . First Published March 7, 2011 5:00 AM


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