Kemp signs dyslexia screening, other school-related legislation

May 2, 2019, Marietta -- Gov. Brian Kemp, flanked by children, parents, lawmakers and educators, signs new dyslexia mandate during ceremony at Wheeler High School Thursday.



May 2, 2019, Marietta -- Gov. Brian Kemp, flanked by children, parents, lawmakers and educators, signs new dyslexia mandate during ceremony at Wheeler High School Thursday.

In five years, all Georgia elementary schools will have to screen every kindergartner for a reading condition called dyslexia.

But the main effect of Gov. Brian Kemp's decision to sign Senate Bill 48 Thursday should come sooner: new teacher training.

The historic legislation, Georgia’s first dyslexia mandate, easily passed both chambers of the General Assembly this year, pushed by emotional testimony from children who described public schools that lacked both skill and empathy when confronted with their inability to read.

Dyslexia experts estimate that 10% to 20% of the population has dyslexia, which, if true, translates to as many as 180,000, or even 360,000, Georgia students. It might help explain why only one in three Georgia fourth graders scored “proficient” on a national reading test.

“Georgians know how important this bill is,” Kemp said, before signing it during a ceremony at Wheeler High School in Cobb County. To illustrate that, he described an encounter Wednesday on an airliner. He was getting luggage from the overhead bin when a fellow passenger told him he’d heard about the pending signing ceremony, and thanked him for backing the legislation.

The new law calls on the state’s teacher credentialing agency, the Professional Standards Commission, to set new standards for what future teachers must learn about dyslexia. The agency must also establish a specialist “endorsement” by the end of this year.

First grade teacher Jessica Strickland (center) teaches a phonics lesson to her students using the Orton Gillingham learning approach at Sawyer Road Elementary school in Marietta, Thursday, February 7, 2019. 

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Jennifer Lindstrom serves on the state task force that will recommend the new standards. The goal, said Lindstrom, who teaches at the University of Georgia’s education college, is two-fold: give all future teachers a grounding in dyslexia so they can recognize it and understand it, and create a cadre of teachers with more in-depth knowledge who can serve as specialists.

Most parents probably won’t notice a change until the mandatory screening starts. SB 48, which was shepherded through the Legislature by Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrence, requires schools to screen all kindergartners, plus any first through third graders exhibiting signs of dyslexia, starting in 2024.

Lawmakers wanted a delay until then so the state could run a pilot program to test out screening and teaching methods. State Superintendent Richard Woods will be soliciting school districts from across the state —the legislation specifies a representative mix of urban, suburban and rural — to be the guinea pigs for the three-year study.

One thing officials will be watching closely: how many students are flagged by the screening systems.

Tina Engberg, leader of the parent advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia Georgia, said she is thrilled by the new law but said it is only a start. To really fix the reading problem, schools will have to put more time and money into addressing dyslexia, with better-trained teachers and more well-trained specialists, she said. She thinks the screening will heighten awareness of the extent of the problem, building more political pressure to address it.

“It is a foot in the door,” she said.

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Kemp signed other education bills Thursday, including Senate Bill 108 requiring computer science courses in every high school (plus "exploratory" courses in middle schools), House Bill 218 extending eligibility for the HOPE Scholarship from seven to 10 years, Senate Bill 60 requiring training for student athletes about the warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest and House Bill 68 prohibiting school accreditors from serving as Student Scholarship Organizations.