The Marion School District is committed to combating dyslexia, which affects one out of every five children on average worldwide.
Six certified academic language therapists (Emily Stewart, Sherry Tacker, Amber Jones, Mallory Cupples, Kathy Hodge, and Deidra Love), and one math interventionist (Jennifer Coats) make up the Take Flight program at Marion, six of whom specialize in diagnosing dyslexia at the intermediate level. The Take Flight program currently develops almost 200 students at MSD, and the number grows during the school year. Coats serves 25 students at Marion Visual and Performing Arts magnet school, and almost 20 students apiece at Herbert Carter Global Community magnet school, and Math, Science and Technology magnet school.
“We've all been in different areas of education, but makes us a great team because we bring different aspects,” said Stewart. “That's a lot of collaboration, and new, fresh ideas we have in one space, and that's so important when determining students who qualify for our services.”
Candidates start at the teaching level, adding competencies and hours to move on to the therapy level. All of Marion's dyslexia interventionists in the Take Flight program operate on the therapy level.
“We had an influx of students who we identified ending the 2018-19 school year as demonstrating traits associated with dyslexia,” said Stewart. “Our administration hired three more interventionists and sent us for the training due to the influx, which is amazing because not all districts have this many teachers trained in this program. It's hands down the best training I've ever received. We learned so much, and continue to use it every day, and make differences in our students' lives.”
Students are screened at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year through multiple avenues district to see if they struggle in phonological awareness, as well as decoding, spelling, word recognition, rate, fluency, and encoding. Students get more attention in their homeroom class, at first, through the RTI process before being referred as exhibiting characteristics of dyslexia, and entered into the Take Flight program.
“After we've gone through the appropriate process, we contact the parents to get permission to screen the student,” said Stewart. “We don't diagnose, but if a student has characteristics, then we place them into the program.”
A two-year program, Take Flight offers simple reading approaches, introducing two letters and sounds per day, and applying new knowledge by reading sentences and words that combine new learning, as well as previously learned material, with additional practice with new learning through phonemic awareness and spelling activities.
Once the first books are completed, the program progresses into more complex sounds and patterns in words, incorporating reading with fluency and rate, as well as grammar, reading comprehension texts, and connected text.
“It starts with simple tasks, beginning with sound/symbol relationships, and progresses to more complex skills. It's crucial to realize how your mouth forms sounds when a student has phonological deficits,” said Stewart.
After a student completes the program, the student is screened again, and transitional needs are determined case by case, but all students have to understand and state their deficits. Understanding their deficits makes it possible for them to inform others, and set them up for long-term success.
The Take Flight program took off in the fall of 2019 at Marion, meaning that it has been affected immensely by Covid-19. Students have yet to complete the two-year program uninterrupted.
Stewart's experience with dyslexia doesn't just stop at school. Her daughter has benefited from the extra attention provided by the program.
“Her first-grade year was terrible. Reading was laborious and it took us hours to do homework,” said Stewart. “Second grade, she began the Take Flight program, and her reading improved. Her teacher was thorough and very supportive, which is vital to building confidence when beginning therapy. Then, in third grade, when she was required to do her work without guidance, she bloomed. She made the honor roll, and she was excited with her gains as a whole. This year when they took tests at the beginning of the year, she was one of the highest in reading and math within her homeroom. There were times where I wasn't sure if she'd ever be able to read fluently. Now she loves to read and write. It's just a dramatic difference, which made me a huge advocate for this evidence-based program.”
The earlier a student is identified as having characteristics of dyslexia, the easier it is to build confidence and make dramatic gains in reading. That's why early detection is a point of emphasis at Marion.
“As you progress through school, the curriculum gets harder, you have to apply foundational skills obtained in Kindergarten through second grade on your own, as well as build upon those skills, in addition to new learning,” said Stewart. “Our district has taken the R.I.S.E initiative with reading by offering Reading Horizons K-12 to aid students who may have gaps in phonics and reading, which will produce better readers and writers. The students we serve hear sounds for spelling and writing better than they have in the past due to this initiative. That's so beneficial to their progress and overall success in the Take Flight program. It takes a village to help a struggling reader, especially those who are dyslexic, and I am thrilled with how far our district has come in the last five years. I cannot wait to see teachers and students Take Flight over the next five years.”