Mayor Eric Adams is promising to pump millions of dollars into identifying and supporting students with dyslexia. His executive budget proposes $7.4 million for dyslexia screening and programs, including funding to help launch two new schools for students with reading disabilities in Harlem and the Bronx.
Adams has frequently invoked his own struggle with dyslexia, and increasing support for students with learning disabilities has been a consistent theme in his education agenda. He cited his experience again at his budget presentation in Brooklyn this week.
“I know from my own life the challenges that a learning disability creates for a child and how they can be overcome with early diagnosis and the right support,” he said.
The City Council will continue to negotiate with the administration over the financial plan, which is due by July 1st. Officials said Adams will be offering more details of his plan to help students with dyslexia soon.
Families and advocacy groups welcomed the news, but say that the city needs to commit to training all teachers across the system on strong, proven literacy strategies that benefit students with dyslexia and other reading challenges, such as training more teachers in evidence-based interventions. “We’re pleased the mayor is suggesting new investments in this area and want to see the city go further,” said Sarah Part, policy analyst at Advocates for Children of New York.
Adams has said identifying and addressing learning differences is not only a key plank of his education agenda, but essential to stopping “the school to prison pipeline.” A September 2021 survey from the Correctional Education Association found almost half of inmates had dyslexia. Many had dropped out of high school, and some left even earlier in middle school, according to the survey. Research also shows students with dyslexia are also at higher risk for severe anxiety and depression.
Marcus Soutra, president of Eye to Eye, a nonprofit created for and by people with learning disabilities, said it’s all too common for students with dyslexia to slip through the cracks of the city’s school system.
Soutra said simply getting diagnosed is a “cumbersome process,” involving upfront costs and a complex web of resources that can be extremely difficult to navigate. For New Yorkers without ample time and resources, it can be nearly impossible.
Diagnosis often requires a referral (which can be from a parent, principal, or another official) to a specialist, Soutra said, followed by a waitlist that can span six to nine months, and then a neuropsychological evaluation costing up to $5,000. It can take years for students to get the support they need — and many don’t, he said.
In the meantime, Soutra explained, far too many students experience a sense of “deep failure” as they fall further and further behind their peers.
Soutra believes Adams’ proposal for a universal dyslexia screening could be “transformative.” A screener would likely be a brief assessment that could identify students who are not progressing in reading as they should and may be in need of intervention.
“It’s super exciting that the city is prioritizing students with dyslexia,” he said, adding that he applauds the mayor for sharing his own story. But Soutra said the city has a long way to go. Estimates show that somewhere between one in five and one in 20 students in the population have a learning disability.
“Investing in professional development for educators to meet the needs of students who learn differently in all schools would be really valuable,” he said.
After a 1993 Supreme Court decision, families of students with disabilities can seek reimbursement for private school tuition if it is determined city schools are not equipped to provide them with an “appropriate” education. Families who sue the Department of Education then go through a hearing process.
As Chalkbeat NY reported, these reimbursement costs surged under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, after de Blasio called for a more “respectful” approach to the claims; the Independent Budget Office found that spending was over $700 million for 2020 fiscal year.
To serve more students within the public school system, both Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks have stated they want to open dyslexia-focused public schools in every borough.
Some parents have been organizing toward that goal for years. A group of parents formed Bridge Preparatory Charter School in Staten Island, which is geared towards students with dyslexia and opened in 2019. Parents of students with learning disabilities are mobilizing to create traditional public schools that specialize in teaching students with dyslexia as well. They hope the Adams administration will build on their efforts.
“We as a group of moms have always said that reading is a Civil Rights issue,” said Naomi Peña, a parent of four and president of the District 1 Community Education Council on the Lower East Side.
Peña’s four children all have dyslexia with varying levels of severity. Her eldest, now 22, had an Individualized Education Program and got extra time on tests. “None of it helped,” she said. After struggling to graduate, he got his GED but his self-esteem remains “bruised and battered.”
Peña said during remote learning early in the pandemic she "had a front row seat" to how much her youngest son was struggling with reading. She said the fourth grader couldn't read words on the screen or type responses.
She ultimately sued the city to pay for him to attend a private school. “It was a gut wrenching decision to leave the public school system,” she said. “But in the months he’s been there it has completely revolutionized the way he approaches reading.”
Now Peña is working with other parents as part of a group called the Literacy Academy Collective to advocate for a school that focuses on evidence-based literacy instruction in the Bronx. “Our vision is to address those students who need the support explicitly,” she said, with “structured literacy all day everyday, not just in English, but in math, in science” and beyond.
They envision creating a “lighthouse school” that would serve as a training ground for teachers who could bring strategies to other schools.
Peña said teachers need to undergo extensive training in order to effectively help kids with reading challenges. “This is not something you do over Zoom for eight hours, if you’re going to do it right,” she said. “You don’t send a medical doctor to learn how to do surgeries on YouTube.”
The group is eyeing adding special classrooms to an existing school to start, and eventually growing into standalone.
Debbie Meyer, a board member of the Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children, has been working with another group of parents on a similar track. She said they’re talking to a principal in Harlem about a pilot program for first and second grade, where teachers can get intensive training on an instruction approach specifically geared toward students with dyslexia. The approach is called Orton-Gillingham and is considered effective for students with learning disorders, according to studies.
Meyer said the idea is to spin off a program or convert a school into a model that can serve both dyslexic and general education students. She said the city should also invest in training and dispatching more literacy specialists to schools citywide, and enhance its literacy supports at headquarters and at the district level.
She said the group wants to make sure “students can take advantage of some of our stellar middle and high schools and have career and college options upon graduation.”