Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series looking at whether Hawaii’s public schools are doing enough to help students with dyslexia and other struggling readers. Read part two as we explore what happens when families of dyslexic children can’t afford to send their kids to specialized private schools.

When Rhea Nekota graduated from high school, she read at the sixth-grade level. She had spent nearly all of her 13 years in Hawaii public schools bouncing between pull-out special education sessions, specialized tutoring, study hall and regular classes — never quite getting the support she needed for her learning disability.

Nekota has dyslexia, which experts say is likely the most common of all learning disabilities. Still, the Hawaii Department of Education, Nekota’s teachers and even her federally mandated Individualized Education Program (IEP) team repeatedly failed to accommodate her. She was isolated and ignored, too advanced for intensive special education yet in desperate need of instruction catered to her learning style.

“I started to feel that no one in the school system really wanted to help me,” she would later write in a personal essay. “My teachers would agree with my mother and say that I needed help, but no one was willing to do anything. I was just passed from one teacher to another. Quarters rolled into semesters, and semesters into years. Years of wasted time, filled with people who didn’t know or care what to do with me.”

Research indicates that nearly one in every five people has dyslexia or a similar language-based learning disability. That would translate into an estimated 280,000 people in Hawaii, according to the International Dyslexia Association’s Hawaii branch (HIDA).

Still, experts say stories like Nekota’s are common because Hawaii’s public school system isn’t equipped with the tools it needs to support students who have dyslexia or similar reading disabilities. Schools often end up pigeonholing the students into generic special needs classes or don’t do anything at all, they say.

“They haven’t been addressing them (dyslexic students),” said Paul Singer, who heads Assets School, a private school serving roughly 340 students, the bulk of whom have dyslexia. “I don’t know that they’ve even recognized their existence.”

Dyslexia is a neurological, likely genetic language-based learning disability that can make it difficult to recognize the basic sounds of speech in letters — a technique sometimes referred to as decoding. The inability to connect letters with sounds makes it challenging to blend those sounds into words, which can often take a toll on comprehension. People with dyslexia typically have difficulty with a range of language skills, including reading, spelling, writing and pronunciation.

“What we know about children with dyslexia is that their brains are wired differently,” said Ryan Masa, president of the HIDA’s board of directors and a former teacher. “That’s not good or bad — it’s just different. And we need specific training to help them read. It’s all about cracking the code.”

And both the children themselves and society at-large suffer when dyslexia goes unaddressed, Masa said, citing chronic psychological problems and increased public education spending as examples of what can happen when dyslexic students never get help cracking the code. (Read part two of this series to learn more about the repercussions of undiagnosed or unsupported dyslexia.)

State lawmakers this year considered a bill that would’ve required the Hawaii Department of Education to beef up its dyslexia program by enhancing awareness of the disability, providing professional development opportunities to teachers and placing a licensed reading specialist in every school. But despite dozens of written testimonials in support of House Bill 675, the measure died in committee.

The DOE was one of two entities to oppose the bill, with schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi writing that the department already provides the services outlined in the proposal. And the department has also submitted testimony in opposition of two concurrent resolutions aimed at improving how public schools work with dyslexic kids — through a plan that a working group took three years to draft — citing progress on the DOE’s Strategic Plan.

DOE Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe emphasized that the department approaches all students with learning disabilities on a case-by-case basis, pointing to the DOE’s Strategic Plan as an initiative whose goals include specified intervention for dyslexic students. The proposals outlined in HB 675 and the resolutions, he said, don’t quite align themselves with the direction in which the DOE is heading.

“One of those commitments we have is this continuum of support for students,” he said, adding that learning disability screening, tiered interventions, progress monitoring and data-driven instruction are some of the methodologies laid out in the Strategic Plan. “You can see there are parts right there of what was advocated for in legislation that latches right onto that.”

But advocates say more could be done.

“I don’t think anyone’s doing enough,” said Masa, who also serves as the director of education at the Hawaiian Educational Council and is affiliated with the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools. “You’ll never find a teacher who got into the profession to not help kids — that’s just not who they are. Yet they fail these kids across the country for years. There’s a really big disconnect.”

It wasn’t until after Nekota graduated from high school and started meeting with a private tutor that she got the instruction she needed. Within three months, she was reading at a college level. It was then that she wrote her personal essay.

She went on to study at Leeward Community College — where she got support through the Kakoo Ike program, which serves students with documented disabilities — Kapiolani Community College and the University of Hawaii-West Oahu.

And now 29 years old, Nekota is currently pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology at Argosy University.

“I was told by a professional, ‘Don’t ever expect her to go to college,’” said Nekota’s mother Jeanette. “But it’s not something that’s rocket science — it’s very simple, it’s in the law … but they (the schools) don’t help the kids.”

Nekota realized her daughter had a reading problem when she was in the second grade. She asked the school for help, but after testing her daughter the school said she didn’t qualify for extra support. The school eventually put her in a reading pull-out class — regularly taking her out of the general classroom for more specialized instruction — but that didn’t help, either.

“They’re saying they can adequately work with dyslexic kids, but it’s really hard to explain to them one size doesn’t fit all,” Jeanette Nekota said. “There are different severities and different ways of learning.”

For years Rhea Nekota struggled. But her mother continued to fight for her, arranging for extra help with teachers, requesting an Individualized Education Program when she transitioned into high school, even filing for a due process hearing when every other effort to get her daughter help failed.

The state ruled that the school had been negligent in providing her daughter with a free and appropriate education. But nothing changed.

Students With Dyslexia Require Specialized Instruction

Statistics indicate that Hawaii’s schools aren’t doing enough for struggling readers.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results show that Hawaii’s students in general read well below national averages. In 2011, 41 percent of the state’s fourth graders and 32 percent of the state’s eighth graders read below basic reading levels.

HB675 was developed around the notion that children with dyslexia generally cannot be taught to read with standard teaching methods used in Hawaii’s classrooms. Instead, dyslexic students require highly trained teachers and specific, structured and continued intervention using well-researched strategies such as multi-sensory language instruction, according to HIDA.

That approach, Masa emphasized, relies heavily on early screening and diagnosis. Yet numerous family members of dyslexic children told Civil Beat that public schools failed to even recognize that their children had reading problems in the first place.

And when schools did conduct testing, they couldn’t provide the specialized support necessary for addressing dyslexia, family members said. They recounted how their children had to take multiple and inconsistent dyslexia tests, only to be stonewalled by schools or connected with specialists who didn’t have the proper training.

Even more frustrating, they said, was when schools either told them that their kids weren’t eligible for special-needs classes — and refused to provide early intervention — or insisted that they simply were doing everything that they could.

One such family member is Carol Mikasobe, who said schools repeatedly turned a blind eye to her 14-year-old dyslexic grandson, B.J.. After a slew of school-sponsored testing, school administrators simply told Mikasobe that B.J. was a little slow, that he “wasn’t bad enough to warrant any special treatment,” said Mikasobe, who currently serves as B.J.’s primary caregiver.

When B.J. was about to transition into middle school, Mikasobe got him tested at Tripler Army Medical Center, which diagnosed him with a reading disorder. But even after the Mikasobes met with teachers and other school representatives at an Individualized Education Program meeting and presented the findings, the middle school failed to provide what Mikasobe said were necessary accommodations, only putting him in reading classes for one year.

“They didn’t show him any consideration,” Mikasobe said. “He even had teachers that were yelling at him, saying he was lazy, all the things they say about children with learning disabilities.”

It was a particularly disappointing meeting with B.J.’s IEP team last year that spurred Mikasobe to give up on Hawaii’s public school system and enroll her grandson in Assets, a private school. Only now is he excelling in school and getting the attention he needs, Mikasobe said.

Dyslexia Support Lacking Across Country, Advocates Say

Federal law — through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — mandates support for students with “specific learning disabilities,” a category under which dyslexia falls. But the law doesn’t do enough for dyslexic children, experts say, because it doesn’t require specialized interventions for different kinds of learners.

“The problem is that there’s a great deal of variability and inconsistency in providing for the interventions that students should be receiving,” said Rebecca Aldred, a member of the International Dyslexia Association’s board of directors. “Most often it does not hone down into the determination of dyslexia, and the treatment could be very different than what the children should receive.”

According to Aldred, who has long tracked dyslexia laws across the country, 22 states have recently enacted dyslexia-specific education policies that supplement IDEA. Such policies include the required distribution of informational handbooks, universal dyslexia screening and awareness campaigns.

Among those states is Texas, often seen as the country’s model for school-based dyslexia policies. The state certifies reading specialists and distinguishes between dyslexia and specific learning disabilities. It also distributes handbooks with dyslexia-specific information and advice.

Had HB 675 advanced it would’ve made Hawaii a national leader with regard to school-based dyslexia support, according to Kristen Amundson, vice president of national policy think tank Education Sector and a former Virginia state lawmaker and Fairfax County school board member.

But Nozoe, the DOE deputy superintendent, suggested that the state already provides services beyond what’s outlined in IDEA and dismissed criticims that schools always lump dyslexic students together with other students who have specific learning disabilities.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, and every child is unique,” he said. “The focus on levels of interventions and specialized instruction to suit a kid’s needs is where the department is really headed.”

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