By ROGER MOONEY
Kaelani Dix can read. You can’t imagine what that means to her mother unless you have a child with dyslexia.
“Oh my gosh,” Kaelani’s mom, Kimberly Caleb, said. “I’m so grateful.”
Kaelani, 10, just finished the third grade at Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Florida, a private school, with grades 1 through 12, that specializes in teaching children who need specialized attention. Kaelani attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.
Caleb, who lives 40 minutes away in Orlando, found Pace Brantley when searching the internet for resources for kids with dyslexia in Central Florida. She learned while researching reading programs or services for students with special needs that Kaelani would benefit from a school that taught the Orton-Gillingham Approach. The Approach was developed in the 1930s to teach students with dyslexia how to read. It has been used at Pace Brantley for nearly 20 years.
Kaelani, who entered Pace Brantley as a first grader, began the Orton-Gillingham Approach when school began last August. By November, she was able to read “Put Me in the Zoo” by Robert Lopshire, as well as a few pages from her children’s bible.
“I remember people saying this year is a wash (for students) with everything in the pandemic,” Caleb said, “but this is the year my daughter learned to read.”
‘A significant commitment’
According to ortonacademy.org, the Orton-Gillingham Approach is “a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy when reading, writing, and spelling does not come easily to individuals, such as those with dyslexia.”
Orton-Gillingham focuses on the connection between letters and sounds then builds on those connections. Some schools use the Wilson Language or the Barton Reading and Spelling System to teach reading to special needs students. Both programs are offshoots of the Orton-Gillingham Approach.
At Pace Brantley, students usually are in the third grade to enter the Orton-Gillingham Approach after spending the first and second grades prepping for it.
“There’s music involved,” Pace Brantley Principal Jennifer Foor said of the prep work. “There is a lot of imagery involved that are building that working memory that they may be struggling with to get them to move into Orton, because when you move into the Orton program, it requires a lot of memory and working memory. You have to be able to learn information and hold on to it and still be able to pull previously learned information.”
The Approach is a three-year program for the students. They meet in small groups (no more than four students) three or four times a week, 40 minutes at a time. If they haven’t mastered reading in those three years, they can take a fourth year.
“It’s a pretty significant commitment as far as time goes,” Foor said. “Obviously, if we dedicate that much time for our students, we’re saying it works.”
When talking about the Orton-Gillingham Approach, Pam Tapley, Pace Brantley’s head of school, offered Kaelani is the success story for the 2020-21 school year.
“She came to us with no foundation,” Tapley said. “The teacher started with all of the early reading skills, the phonemic awareness, letter and sound recognition, and this is a little girl who is now reading and as importantly, because we’ve seen the two correlations, she’s writing.”
‘You’re giving them life’
Kaelani was speech-delayed, but Caleb was unaware her daughter was dyslexic.
“When she got into school she struggled tremendously. Nothing was clicking. It was difficult,” she said.
Kaelani repeated pre-K. Testing revealed she had specific learning disabilities and, while not officially diagnosed, Caleb said her daughter displayed all the symptoms and criteria of dyslexia.
That’s what sent Caleb searching for the proper school, a search that led her to Pace Brantley.
Caleb spent 15 years as an elementary and middle school teacher at district schools. She understands the importance of reading. Plus, everyone in the family is an avid reader. Books abound in their home.
Kaelani always wanted to read. She would even take a book and pretend she was reading it. And, if it was a page that had been read to her enough times, Kaelani could act as if she was reading by reciting what she had heard over and over.
Caleb bought “Put Me in the Zoo” and wanted Kaelani to read it before school. And one morning she did.
“This wasn’t a passage she was practicing. These were brand new words she hadn’t read. She sat there and started reading it,” Caleb said.
It was an emotional moment for a mother.
“I was just overwhelmed,” she said. “I compare a teacher who can teach a child how to read like a doctor. You’re giving them life. You’re saving a life. Especially one who struggles.
“My daughter wanted to read so bad. She would pick up books and pretend to read. Now that she can make sense of those words, I can’t describe it. I was so worried. I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t know why she couldn’t do what other kids do.”
Now Kaelani can do what the other kids can do. She can read.
“OK,” Caleb said, “she’s ready now and she’s able to excel.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.