Photo courtesy of PS 161, of students in class.

New dyslexia program helps students thrive at South Bronx school

Literacy Academy Collective’s new educational pilot program for children with dyslexia and learning disabilities is planting seeds of hope for families in the South Bronx whose children have been struggling in traditional public school curriculums.

P.S. 161 Juan Ponce de Leon is one of two schools in the city that are piloting a dyslexia and special education program that Mayor Eric Adams authorized last year.  The program, budgeted at $7.4 million, involves 30 students from the second and third grades at P.S. 161 and PS 125 in Harlem. 

The funding also covers screenings and additional dyslexia support for over 80 elementary and 80 middle schools in the city.

The Literacy Academy is a non-profit group based in Manhattan, organized by six mothers with children who had been diagnosed with dyslexia and who realized they needed a targeted program to educate their children. They successfully pitched their curriculum to the city when Adams announced the initiative.

Teachers or parents identify students for the pilot classrooms. The staff uses the Acadience learning screener to gauge if students have any learning disabilities or reading issues and if they could benefit from the new program.

The screener is a free 20-minute standardized assessment focused on reading comprehension for all age groups. The pilot program also accepts students who do not have dyslexia but struggle with reading.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is a neurobiological learning disability in which kids struggle with spelling issues and have difficulty accurately recognizing words and alphabets, connecting letters to their distinctive sounds, and decoding the meaning of what they are reading.

The curriculum focuses on structured literacy, which explicitly educates kids about the connections between sounds and letters. This is to foster language development that emphasizes sound formation and is imperative for children with learning disabilities, especially dyslexia, since their sound sense is lacking.

Naomi Peña is one of the co-founders of the Literacy Academy Collective. Her eldest son, Jonah, was 6 when she discovered he had dyslexia. She remembers the day when her son’s learning disability became crystal clear. “He came up to me one day and said he feels that he has a small brain. I really can’t describe how sad I felt at that moment,” she said.

She later discovered that her other three children also had dyslexia. They were genetically predisposed because her husband has dyslexia.

While education programs for special needs students have been instituted through the years, often regular classroom teachers do not have the training to pick up on learning disability cues from students, she said. Often, they just chalk it up to a student being lazy, Peña said.

The signals range from slow speech development and difficulty learning nursery rhymes to coordination problems and lack of spatial awareness.

Logan Jay, 8, is now enrolled in the third grade dyslexia pilot program at PS 161 Juan Ponce de Leon School and is thriving, according to his mother, Shay Jay. She recalls that he was three years behind his classmates before the pilot began in September.  He had trouble grasping reading concepts and was being bullied by classmates, which created a feeling of helplessness, she reported. 

“What are you supposed to do when you realize your son is really behind and you don’t even know why?” Shay asked.

She tried to teach him by using sight words and repetition techniques, but nothing had a significant impact. The new pilot program came at an opportune time when Shay realized that the traditional curriculum could no longer address her son’s educational needs.

“I’m glad the staff [at school] finally understood the urgency. It’s a much-awaited change,” Shay said.

Five months into the pilot, Shay has noticed an impressive improvement in Logan’s reading skills. She said he has gained a better understanding and can connect the sounds of words and letters in the alphabets, recognizes visual appearance, and the meaning behind the words.

She also sees a stark behavioral change in Logan, who is more relaxed and confident since he is no longer behind the rest of his classmates. Logan’s insecurities about being bullied have diminished as he is slowly becoming friends with his peers, Shay reported.

In launching the dyslexia program, Adams noted that he suffered from dyslexia throughout his youth, until it was diagnosed in college, and that it severely impacted his academic career. He said he didn’t want students with disabilities to face the same struggles as he did.

The South Bronx was selected as a site for one of the two pilot schools by the Department of Education because it has the least amount of resources devoted to literacy, according to Peña.

If this program meets the department’s goals, Literacy Academy Collective hopes to get approval to set up an academy in the Bronx in 2023, with a focus on dyslexia, but students with other reading issues would be able to enroll. It would be an NYCDOE public school, the first of its kind.

Even if that happens and the academy moves into its own space, PS161 Juan Ponce de Leon Principal Brian Blough, who has served as a special education teacher, intends to continue the  program at P.S. 161 and even expand it to include fourth graders in next year’s program.

Blough said the Mayor’s office support is crucial.  “We get a lot of politicians that say they’re going to make big changes. I am impressed that somebody did something that we can see and feel, and it’s not just words,” he said.

Literacy Academy Collective has teamed with Windward Institute, an independent school for dyslexic kids in New York City, and Windward staff trained the six instructors teaching the pilot at the two schools.

Peña hopes the city’s new attention will result in a greater public awareness of what dyslexia entails. She’s learned that children with dyslexia often have powerful talents that are overlooked and underdeveloped.

“There’s a real brilliance often seen in people with dyslexia,” she said. “They are super creative and can look at things differently from unique perspectives.”

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