Parents urge Gwinnett schools to change approach to students with dyslexia

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As Missy Purcell’s son Matthew struggled with reading as a kindergartner in Gwinnett County, she had flashbacks to her days as a teacher and sitting across from parents concerned about their own children’s challenges.

“Keep working hard,” she told students.

“Keep reading with him,” she told parents.

She now says that type of encouragement overlooked dyslexia, the most common cause of difficulties with reading, spelling and writing.

Purcell and other Gwinnett County parents have turned out in force at board of education meetings. They wore T-shirts that said “teach our kids to read” and “1 in 5 have dyslexia,” a figure supported by the Yale University Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.

Their plea for an overhaul of the district’s literacy curriculum caught board members’ attention.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

At a recent meeting, administrators unveiled a plan to expand teacher training and programs for dyslexic students. They also said they intend to implement dyslexia screening ahead of a 2024 state mandate.

“As we have all identified, this is something our community needs,” said board member Karen Watkins.

Board Chair Tarece Johnson suggested the initiative could be expanded, noting the resources “really benefit all of our students.”

Member Everton Blair agreed that more could be done. “We are committed to 100% of our students reading successfully,” he said.

Purcell said that because Matthew, now 10, continued to struggle with reading, the family took him out of Gwinnett County Public Schools. But he improved after they enrolled him in a private school teaching dyslexic students.

She hopes that speaking out about the experience will make a difference for other families.

For months, she and other parents urged the district to embrace science-based approaches to reading — for all students. Last year, Fulton County Schools reworked its entire literacy curriculum. Several states have created policies about it.

Much of Gwinnett’s new plan focuses on structured literacy, which is favored by the parents. It takes a more technical approach to reading, emphasizing language structure and phonics.

Proponents of the approach often compare it against balanced literacy, which critics say de-emphasizes phonics in favor of unscientific strategies. They often highlight cueing, which instructs a reader to use other clues on the page to identify an unrecognized word.

Gwinnett uses elements of both approaches.

Julie Bailey-Wegner, a Gwinnett teacher, implored the school board at a recent meeting to move away from balanced literacy. She recalled a second grade student who scored well on an assessment by using pictures on the page to fill in words.

“What was that little boy supposed to do when he was expected to move on to chapter books and standardized test passages when those pictures go away?” she asked.

Purcell said she’s pleased with the district’s new plan and appreciates the support. But she and other advocates will keep pushing for that plan to be applied to all students.

“Reading is the foundation for every aspect of our lives,” she said.