Pilot program at McPolin aims to identify dyslexic students

Jana Tullis, a second-grade teacher at McPolin Elementary School, helps her students with reading. The school this year is piloting a reading program aimed at helping teachers identify students with reading disabilities such as dyslexia.
(Bubba Brown/Park Record)

Karen Hall knows as well as anyone how important it is for students with reading disabilities such as dyslexia to be diagnosed early in their lives.

Her son was diagnosed with the disorder when he was young, and while she had to advocate for him throughout his education, they were able to manage his dyslexia. In stark contrast, however, one of her son’s friends went undiagnosed for years. His reading struggles caused serious self-esteem issues.

“There was just this juxtaposition between (our son) being diagnosed early and his friend being diagnosed late,” she said. “It was so obvious to us that early intervention makes a world of difference in where a child will end up.”

That’s why Hall, a Park City resident who created an organization dedicated to the early detection of dyslexia called the Ty & Karen Hall Charitable Foundation, is pleased to see the Park City School District institute a pilot reading program at McPolin Elementary School aimed at identifying struggling young readers and getting them the help they need.

“When you help a child who has a learning disability, and you get in there early, you are saving their self-esteem,” she said. “By saving their self-esteem, you are laying down a pathway for them to feel good about themselves and not make them feel like they have to turn to drugs, alcohol or acting out. Dyslexia is one thing, then there is the psychological, mental health benefit of this early intervention.”

Julie Hastings, an instructional coach at McPolin overseeing the pilot program, said it is being taught this year to students in kindergarten, first grade and second grade. According to the website of the program, called Wilson Fundations, it offers a multisensory curriculum that focuses on phonemic awareness, phonics and word study — methods that allow teachers to better identify dyslexia, but that also help students without reading disabilities flourish.

Hastings said the program fits in with the overhaul of the district’s language-arts curriculum that began last year.

“We’re combining this component of it to make more of a comprehensive approach to reading,” she said. “Teaching the students these strategies, it’s good for all kids. But then the goal, too, is that you cast a wide net, saying that we’re going to possibly prevent struggles with reading and supply the strategies all learning styles need.”

Students who continue to struggle will receive reading interventions and teachers will use more specific approaches to ensure they make progress. Being better able to identify those readers and get them the support they need represents a big step forward for the district, Hastings said.

“It adds more tools to the teacher’s tool belt,” she said. “They’ve always taught foundational skills and reading comprehension and everything together. But now we are saying, ‘We’re doing a lot of things really good, and we just want to get better at other parts.’ We felt this would be the right program to do that.”

As well as piloting the Wilson Fundations program, the district is sending five elementary school educators — two from McPolin and one from each other elementary school — to receive five-day training in the widely respected Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching reading to dyslexic students.

Hastings said the district is hopeful the training and the pilot program increases understanding of dyslexia throughout the district. PC Reads, a local organization that promotes awareness of reading disabilities, will also deliver presentations in the elementary schools about dyslexia.

Additionally, if the pilot program proves successful, it could make its way to the other three elementary schools in the coming years, Hastings said.

For Hall, that would be a dream come true. Her organization provided the funding for both the pilot program and the educator training through the Park City Education Foundation with the hope students’ lives would be changed for the better.

“Our vision is, if this program is a success, that all kids in the Park City School District are diagnosed early and won’t go to school every day feeling like a failure and feeling beat up,” she said.


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