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Parents ask Decatur Schools to improve reading instruction

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Parents ask Decatur Schools to improve reading instruction

Kanika Sims. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 1 e-edition, a product for Decaturish subscribers. To become a Decaturish subscriber today, visit supportmylocalnews.com 

Decatur, GA — As families leave City Schools of Decatur and struggle to get help for their children with learning differences, some parents are asking the district to improve its reading instruction and embrace the science of reading. 

Recently, parents have raised concerns during school board meetings about the district’s reading program, especially when it comes to students who have dyslexia or other learning differences. They have asked the district to fully embrace the science of reading, train all elementary school teachers in structured literacy practices and eliminate balanced literacy programs. 

CSD has adopted the American Reading Company curriculum. The final phase of the K-5 adoption of the ARC curriculum will be the implementation of two final units during the 2022-2023 school year.

In addition to ARC, the teachers also utilize Orton-Gillingham training, Fundations training and the Heggerty tool.

The Fundations program is a multisensory, structured literacy curriculum that is based on the Orton-Gillingham approach. It ensures that all students receive instruction based on students’ instructional needs.

Heggerty focuses on phonemic awareness through auditory lessons that focus on students manipulating sounds into words. 

Kanika Sims has a son who is nine and dyslexic. Like Emily Beard, she sent her son to Schenck School, which focuses on students with dyslexia. The tuition there is nearly $40,000 a year. 

Sims’ son was able to receive an individualized education plan (IEP) in lower elementary school at CSD. The issue goes beyond whether a student can receive an IEP or 504. She feels CSD teachers don’t have the tools they need to teach students with learning differences how to read. 

“If the people who are actually supposed to be putting in place the actual teaching aren’t able to teach and don’t have the tools that they need to teach our children the skills that they should be gaining, then this piece of paper [the IEP] means nothing,” Sims said. 

She pulled her son out of CSD after he got an IEP, as he was still struggling to learn how to read. That changed within a month of her son attending Schenck School. He spent third grade at Schenck and re-enrolled in CSD for fourth grade. He’s doing well now, but she worries about other kids whose parents can’t afford to provide costly interventions. 

“Knowing that there are so many kids that will never make it to a Schenck School or a specialized school like this, and knowing that there are parents who will never be able to pay $3,000 for a psych-ed evaluation or for these OG tutors. What happens to those kids?” Sims said. 

Meagan Swingle is a parent volunteer and the communications chair for Decoding Dyslexia Georgia, a grassroots organization led by parents. During the Aug. 9 school board meeting, she said that parents have shared their dismay that many families spend thousands on private tutoring or leave CSD after not getting the appropriate interventions and support for their children with dyslexia. 

Several families met with Superintendent Maggie Fehrman over the summer. During those meetings, parents shared more details about their concerns regarding balanced literacy lessons in the ARC curriculum, Swingle said. 

“We dispelled the misperception that parents are asking for a ‘phonics-only’ approach and clarified that the evidence-based Structured Literacy approach we are advocating for would be inclusive of all five ‘essential elements of reading instruction’: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension,” Swingle said. 

She added that throughout the meetings with Fehrman, parents felt encouraged that their concerns were heard and acknowledged.

Parents want to keep working with the district to improve literacy outcomes for all students and have a new ask of the district and school board. 

“We would like to see CSD develop a comprehensive plan for improving literacy outcomes for all students, including timelines for adopting evidence-based reading programs and providing LETRS and Orton-Gillingham training for all administrators, K-5 reading teachers and special education staff,” Swingle said. 

CSD has discussed requiring teachers to complete Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) training. This training is a two-year professional learning course for teachers of spelling, reading and related language skills, according to a reading program FAQ put together by the district. 

CSD pays for 70 hours of in-person training by an Orton-Gillingham fellow for up to 25 teachers per cohort. Orton-Gillingham is a multisensory approach to teaching reading, according to the FAQ.

For the 2022-2023 school year, all K-5 teachers and 6-12 intervention teachers will participate in the Science of Reading training, according to a draft literacy initiative plan from the district. 

CSD teachers participated in the Reading is Essential for All People training from 2017-2019. All kindergarten through third grade teachers have received Fundations training. 

During her public comment, Swingle said parents would like to see the district create a taskforce of parents, educators and administrators to look closely at the special education process in CSD and develop recommendations on how CSD can better support families. 

“Families should not have to hire costly advocates or attorneys to ensure their child’s right to FAPE, a Free and Appropriate Public Education, as outlined by the IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act,” she said. 

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