Pilot program for CBCS to benefit students with dyslexia

Includes certified language therapist position

By Katherine Nettles

Children at the Crested Butte Elementary School who suffer from dyslexia may soon have a targeted intervention program to help them sort out reading delays and other challenges that can impact their academic trajectory.

The pilot program, which an anonymous donor has funded for the Gunnison Watershed School District (GWSD), is expected to begin with the 2019/20 school year.

The program would allow the school to hire and then train a person for the concept being used in other schools, using a reading remediation program for children with dyslexia within general education classrooms.

Sometimes children with dyslexia do not qualify for special needs programs, said Crested Butte elementary school principal Sally Hensley. The program would allow for a certified academic language therapist. The therapist would be licensed to help identify children with reading problems, to offer assistance and to train teachers district-wide. The donation would cover the hiring and training of one full-time staff member, and the additional hours to provide training to other teachers.

The donor presented the school district with the option of funding a reading intervention pilot program last fall, explained GWSD superintendent Leslie Nichols in a school board meeting on March 21.

The initial offer was to sponsor a separate charter school in the area, according to Nichols, but she said that was not desirable to the district at this time.

The Colorado Springs school district D49 Zone Superintendent Mike Pickering will offer guidance going forward in developing the program based on his experience with the Academy for Literacy, Learning, Innovation and Excellence (ALLIES). ALLIES is a tuition-free Colorado Springs public school that specifically works with students in grades second through fifth who are affected by reading difficulties and characteristics of dyslexia.

The school and the donor did not disclose the amount of the grant, but Nichols said it would cover the full-time staff position, training needed, and ongoing training the specialist would then offer to other schools in the district. The donor would also help identify ways to expand the program, said Nichols.

“The idea is to start small,” said Hensley.

“And young,” added school board president LeAnn Mick, referring to the board’s discussion that intervention at an early age is known to make the biggest impact on a student. According to the International Dyslexia Foundation, 15 percent to 20 percent of the population has a language-based learning disability, and dyslexia has no relation to intelligence. Because there is no “cure,” the only solution for those with dyslexia is to learn coping strategies as prescribed in the intervention program.

During the school board’s discussion of the offer, questions came up regarding how interventionists might work with both the Crested Butte and Gunnison elementary schools.

Hensley described the structure of this position, and how treating interventions are tackled differently at each school.

“At Gunnison Elementary, there are three teachers [enabled] from Title One funding. At Crested Butte schools, we don’t qualify for Title One and don’t have the cadre that Gunnison does,” said Hensley. She said that due to other relatively new reading programs under way at Gunnison Elementary, such as Being a Reader (in its second year), the curriculum is already maxed out and could not yet accommodate another reading program.

“[Regarding] the capacity and readiness for a site to implement a program like this, Gunnison Elementary doesn’t have the capacity to wrap their staff around this in addition to the other. Crested Butte is more primed for it,” she said.

The board members discussed their concerns at length about the donor’s commitment to sustain the new teacher salary schedule into the future, and the level of involvement the donor requested to participate in the specialist hiring process.

Nichols said a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is renewable annually, “so theoretically, any July 1, the [donor] family could opt to take it away. We would like to give it in perpetuity, but we don’t have that in writing,” she said. Nichols did not think that would be a problem, however, and suggested that if given this opportunity to explore the program’s potential, the district could always adopt it in the future if it proved worthwhile and the funding dried up.

“The district gets an infusion to realize the benefits of a program, and if it goes well then we figure out how we can fund it,” Nichols said. “I do think the sustainability is an important question, but I think that if we were to shy away from this because we couldn’t guarantee it would last forever, that would be a mistake.”

Nichols is looking into how another state grant might integrate well with the program, as well.

“Whether it works or not, I think we have to try,” said Mick.

The board unanimously approved accepting the donation for the purposes outlined, with stipulations that they receive a copy of the MOU; and that they add to the clause identifying the population being served to eventually include the whole of Gunnison County.

The arrangement reached between Nichols and the donor was to have the donor involved on the hiring committee, although the board and Nichols will still have the final say.

Hensley will post the position after the school district attorney gives final approval after fine-tuning the MOU. The training starts in June, said Hensley, so she is anxious to begin the hiring process.

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