Our schools fail dyslexic children, but the Louisiana Key Academy is a model solution

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Laura Cassidy, M.D.

After Hurricane Katrina, charter schools became the dominant system in New Orleans, as city dwellings were destroyed by water and the school system was devastated by corruption. The takeover was swift, and the concept moved westward to Baton Rouge, where this wave of change allowed Louisiana Key Academy (LKA), a charter school whose board I lead, to open its doors in August 2013 to serve children with characteristics of dyslexia.

Although opportunities were always available to families with money, the concept of a school with our mission was new to public education. We were able to break ground thanks to support from parents of dyslexics and educators that had taught privately or tutored children with dyslexia. Today, LKA serves 340 students in first through seventh grade, and employs thirteen teachers who will sit for their Certified Academic Language Therapy exam in January, after compiling years of applicable course work and practicum. Five more will sit in the summer.

Unfortunately, it was—and is—an uphill battle because the school isn’t embraced by the wider educational policy world. Some don’t believe dyslexia is enough on which to build a charter, others define it very narrowly, and still others say the system works just fine for these kids. But all of these positions defy the data and the reality of our parents, children, and teachers.

LKA defines dyslexia as an “unexpected difficulty in reading for an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader,” and is “most commonly caused by a difficulty in phonological processing (the appreciation of the individual sounds of the spoken language), which affects the ability of an individual to speak, read, and spell, and often, the ability to learn a second language.” More generic public schools produce poor outcomes for children who fit these criteria, so they deserve a place of their own that’s tailored to them. We provide that—and because we’re a charter school, we do so without tuition, which opens our doors to low-income and minority children who are most in need of a good education. Indeed, LKA qualifies for school-wide free lunch, and 62 percent of our students are African American.

The demand for a charter like ours is also evident in where our families live. Despite our location in East Baton Rouge, 28 percent of our kids hail from other parishes that often require substantial commutes. I’ve talked to a few of those parents, and it’s clear that they chose us because their dyslexic children were not recognized and/or served well in Louisiana’s other public schools, be they charter or traditional, many of which failed to even identify these kids’ dyslexia.

One mother of a student we’ve had for two years said that her child had to repeat a grade before coming to LKA, but now has greater confidence, a better attitude about school, and better reading skills. Another, whose kid also had to skip a grade before joining us, drives thirty minutes each way and said choosing our charter was “one of the best decisions I ever made.” A third, who treks forty-five minutes every morning, transferred her daughter to LKA after she was repeatedly placed, as a second grader, in the time-out room due to severe anxiety and the bouts of crying it caused. And yet another mom, with a three-hour round-trip commute, told me that her child, who was also regularly brought to tears by her previous situation, is no longer frustrated by school.

Yet even with all of these success stories, one of the hardest things about helping to run LKA is knowing that so many other dyslexic children in Louisiana and across the country aren’t getting the help they need and deserve. Schools don’t know that dyslexia can be identified in kindergarten or that it causes academic achievement gaps that can be measured shortly thereafter. Research shows that “general lack of substantial in reading if interventions are delayed until after the first grade.” This affects not only their long-term academic outcomes, but their self-esteem and emotional well-being, too.

All of this points to the need for new and better policies. For starters, we should screen all kindergarteners to see whether they’re at risk for dyslexia. If they are, we should inform parents, who should have the option of further testing that would formally diagnose the condition. And all identified first-graders should have a school like the Louisiana Key Academy in their area that’s tailored to them and their unique needs. Unfortunately, few do.

Laura Cassidy, M.D. is the president of the board that oversees the Louisiana Key Academy.