Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series looking at dyslexia services in Hawaii’s public schools. Read part 1 looking into whether schools are doing enough to help struggling readers.

Just as her grandson B.J. was gearing up for high school, Carol Mikasobe decided she was fed up.

No more exasperating meetings with B.J.’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team. No more stonewalling from the schools. No more expensive outside tutoring. No more seeing B.J. suffer.

B.J., 14, has dyslexia, a learning disability that along with similar language-based learning disabilities affects as much as 20 percent of the population.

And until she decided to scrape together the money last year and enroll B.J. in Assets School, all Mikasobe could do was watch her grandson struggle.

“It’s the most frustrating thing,” Mikasobe said, recalling B.J.’s three years in middle school. “I had been asking at all the IEP meetings for special reading classes. They said ‘Our teachers are trained,’ but not once did they have any time or process for him to get special reading classes.”

B.J.’s public elementary and middle schools, she said, refused to provide the specialized and intensive support he needed. After being notified that B.J. had a reading disability, the school put him in an extra reading class for one year. But in seventh and eighth grades B.J. was placed in cooking and sewing classes instead, said Mikasobe, who currently serves as B.J.’s primary caregiver.

Conversations with other parents and advocates suggest that experiences like B.J.’s are widespread throughout both the state and country.

Still, the Hawaii Department of Education says it does a lot for dyslexic students and other struggling readers, including dyslexia awareness initiatives, Response to Intervention methods, professional development opportunities and data-based instruction.

But advocates say that’s not enough, emphasizing that unaddressed dyslexia comes with a price tag. An effort to require the DOE to change how it responds to dyslexic students — through House Bill 675 — died this year.

And not all families can send their kids to private schools catered to different learners such as Assets — a K-12 school serving roughly 340 students, the vast majority of whom are dyslexic. Tuition runs at roughly $19,000 for grades kindergarten through eighth and about $22,000 for high school. And though 40 percent of the Assets’ students — including B.J. — receive financial aid, many parents are left without a choice but to send their children to public schools. (Another private school is Academy of the Pacific, which costs nearly $18,000.)

Parents and other family members of dyslexic children told Civil Beat that the state’s public schools don’t always have the tools they need to adequately support struggling readers — a shortfall that experts say can take an especially heavy toll on society and the students’ psychological well-being.

Dyslexia has “a cascading effect, a domino effect on your perception of yourself and others’ perception of you,” said Ryan Masa, president of the International Dyslexia Association’s Hawaii branch (HIDA) board of directors and a former teacher. He said that stigmatism can contribute to high school dropout rates and welfare costs.

After Years of Exasperation, Grandma Enrolls B.J. in Assets

B.J. was in fifth grade when Mikasobe realized he couldn’t read, write or spell. She was just getting accustomed to her role as B.J.’s “pseudo mom” and “homework helper”; B.J.’s father had recently passed away from cancer after a deployment in Iraq, and his mother was getting her nursing degree in Texas (she still is).

The school, after repeatedly refusing to consider that B.J. had dyslexia, finally put him through “a slew of testing,” Mikasobe said. But school administrators said the tests’ reports merely indicated that B.J. was slow. B.J. didn’t get any special treatment in elementary school.

So Mikasobe tried her luck at B.J.’s middle school, this time armed with a report generated at Tripler Medical Center concluding B.J. had a “reading disorder.” But the middle school said it couldn’t set up an IEP meeting until Mikasobe got a sealed report from a clinical psychologist.

B.J. was finally diagnosed with dyslexia in the eighth grade. The new report, produced by a neuropsychologist, recommended that the school provide B.J. with two types of special tutoring.

But the school, according to Mikasobe, said it wasn’t going to provide the tutoring. And when Mikasobe, her husband and two social workers met with B.J.’s IEP team to discuss his transition into high school, school representatives insisted on putting B.J. into an afterschool special education class, totally disregarding the suggestions outlined in the psychologist’s report, Mikasobe said.

“We could not come to an agreement, (the IEP team) didn’t hear anyone in our group,” Mikasobe said. “Of course they brought in all the middle school representatives and high school representatives, and they all voted against us.”

Mikasobe wouldn’t have it. She quickly enrolled B.J. in Assets, thanks to a $4,000 school scholarship and some Social Security money through B.J.’s father. B.J.’s mother foots the rest of the bill.

Current Resolutions Would Urge Schools to Improve Dyslexia Services

But not all families can afford that option. Take Antoinette Torres. Each of Torres’ three sons — ages eight, 10 and 15 — has dyslexia. Torres does, too.

Torres’ experiences echo that of Mikasobe. And only now, eight years after she realized her oldest son had a reading problem, is Torres learning how to navigate the series of testing, IEP meetings, due process hearings, intensive tutoring and supplemental services.

“At 10 years old my (oldest) son talked to me about dropping out of school,” Torres said, on the verge of tears. “I said, ‘No way, that is not an option for you. I will do whatever I have to do.’ I had to quit my job, had to concentrate on him so he could get where he needed to be.”

Still, advocates say they’re not giving up on public schools just yet.

HB 675, which would’ve required the DOE to improve how it addresses students with dyslexia, died in committee in February. But advocates are now pinning their hopes on two concurrent resolutions that would urge the district to work with the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Teacher Standards Board (HTSB) to take up key changes to its dyslexia program.

The measures stem from a 2010 resolution that asked about a dozen people representing various education agencies — including the DOE, UH and several learning disability advocacy groups and education centers — to get together and develop what would eventually be known as the Comprehensive Plan for Teaching Reading in Hawaii Schools.

The plan lays out how to help all Hawaii’s struggling readers — not just students with dyslexia. Drawing from scientific literature, national trends and recommendations from national experts, it calls for data-driven literacy instruction, including multi-sensory structured methods.

It suggests a number of changes to how dyslexic students are addressed in school settings, including recommendations that all teachers be given the training they need to support struggling readers and that each school is equipped with one HTSB-licensed literacy specialist. The Comprehensive Plan also encourages schools to incorporate struggling readers into general education classrooms as much as possible.

House Concurrent Resolution 95 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 120 are currently advancing through the Legislature. (SCR 120 is scheduled for decision-making Wednesday.)

And though HB 675 died, some experts say that the resolutions, if adopted, would still give some momentum to the plan, which took the working group three years of monthly meetings to develop. Even though resolutions don’t have the force of law, they do express “the will, wish or direction of the Legislature.

“In a time of dwindling resources sometimes approaching a change like this from the legislative end may not be the best approach,” said Kristen Amundson, vice president of national policy think tank Education Sector and a former Virginia state lawmaker and Fairfax County school board member. “There are several additional tools available to make something like this happen.”

The DOE submitted testimony in opposition to both HB 675 and the resolutions, writing that it already provides many of the services outlined in the bill and that the resolutions’ recommendations diverge from the priorities established in the department’s two-year budget and Strategic Plan.

Rep. Takashi Ohno, co-chair of the House Education Committee, commended the work put into the Comprehensive Plan and indicated that committee members are leaving it up to the department to refine its dyslexia services as it sees fit.

“We don’t take the view that micromanaging schools is the best policymaking right now,” said Ohno, a former third-grade teacher at Fern Elementary School. “Right now every school budgets as they see necessary … I trust schools to make that call.”

Meantime, the Education Committee has asked the DOE write up a report substantiating its testimony.

DOE Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe emphasized that the department already develops intervention plans based on every child’s educational — versus clinical — needs. He pointed to a number of department programs that provide support for dyslexic children, including an early warning system that identifies students’ challenges and a comprehensive student support system that includes targeted intervention for students.

Nozoe also said that the department intends to work with advocacy groups, including those represented on the working group, to continue developing teacher-friendly intervention strategies.

“We are approaching the issue with the same level of importance and urgency, just from a different perspective,” Nozoe said, noting that many families of dyslexic children have positive experiences with Hawaii’s public schools. “Both perspectives have value, both perspectives are right and neither one is wrong.”

Nozoe pointed to the DOE’s own strategic reform efforts as evidence that the department has made support for all kinds of learners a priority.

“What we are about is making sure that whatever it is we develop and however it is we improve is in line with our overall focus and systems of the department,” Nozoe said. “There’s no silver bullet, there’s no one recipe that you’re going to give out that’s going to solve everybody’s problem.”

“We’ve learned the hard way in our department,” he continued. “When people just add on stuff to the department, it’s added on but it’s not necessarily part of the whole, and it’s not integrated.”

But where both Nozoe and advocates agree is on the importance of proper teacher training to ensuring dyslexic students get the support they need.

Most teacher preparation programs across the country don’t give their students the training they need to accommodate dyslexic students in the classroom, said Rebecca Aldred, a member of the International Dyslexia Association’s board of directors.

“They just don’t have the people there (teacher preparation programs) who are educated in this work — and that just trickles down,” she said.

HIDA’s Masa stressed that most teachers are unable to evaluate students for dyslexia because they don’t understand the diagnosis.

“It’s not that these people are being bad people — they’re not necessarily bad teachers,” he said. “It’s about having the tools in your toolbox.”

The Comprehensive Plan urges the DOE and UH to work together to ensure teachers are equipped with those tools through professional development options and curriculum and practicum requirements. It also asks that the HTSB license literacy specialists to be placed in every public school.

In Hawaii, not a single teacher preparation program trains its students to be literacy specialists, according to HTSB Executive Director Lynn Hammonds.

The HTSB licenses all the teacher preparation programs in the state and administers both reading and reading specialist licenses. About 19 educators in the state are licensed as reading teachers or specialists, Hammonds said, adding that all licensed teachers in the state are required to have training in reading instruction.

But what the HTSB doesn’t yet offer is a literacy specialist license, Hammonds said, adding that the board is currently considering whether to offer one in the future. According to Hammonds, a literacy specialist’s responsibilities would extend beyond those of a reading specialist to include other comprehension skills such as problem-solving and communication.

Students With Dyslexia An ‘At-Risk’ Population

Torres remembers going to her oldest son’s fifth-grade open house and seeing his handwriting. She compared it to that of other students and knew something was wrong.

“I couldn’t even understand his handwriting, could barely read it,” she said. “I used to get mad, you know, ‘How can you not know this stuff?’ … He would be so frustrated because he just can’t do it and would break down and cry. He just couldn’t do it.”

Torres’ journey began when her oldest son was in the second grade. The school refused to give him extra help because he scored too well on an IQ test.

“I had to fight with them,” Torres said. “I said, ‘Either my son is making a fool out of all of us or there’s something wrong here.'”

But, just as with Mikasobe, nothing changed. Torres ultimately had to file for a due process hearing that found the department liable for extra math, reading and counseling services. So Torres, who lives in Ewa Beach, signed her oldest son up for intensive tutoring in Hawaii Kai — lessons for which the department only agreed to pay after seeing proof that they were working.

Now, Torres’ oldest son is “just doing okay.” He’s primarily on his own now, Torres said, aside from some one-on-one help he gets in a few classes. Meantime, she sees her younger sons going through the same motions, relying on IEPs that don’t provide the targeted intervention that she says they need. Torres put her youngest son — who she says struggles more than the middle one — in outside tutoring costing $40 an hour to make sure he doesn’t fall too far behind.

“I’m seeing the same patterns again now,” Torres said. “They (the school) just keep coming up with the same excuses. They talk a good talk but when you actually watch it and see the progress, my son didn’t make any progress … They let him get by with a lot of mistakes and just kept moving on and moving on. But you cannot master step two if you cannot master step one.”

Torres, who is also in tutoring herself as she works on completing her nursing degree, fears that her sons will end up on the wrong path if the schools continue to stonewall them.

“Dyslexic people all need that (extra help),” Torres said. “It takes us a long time to catch on. If we’re in a classroom and there’s a lot of people around and you’re trying to teach the whole class, for us we cannot pick up as fast.”

Torres pointed to the impact unaddressed dyslexia can have on a child’s self-esteem and academic performance.

Advocates say that if the DOE were equipped with trained professionals, fewer dyslexic students would end up dropping out of school, turning to self-destructive behavior and resorting to other coping methods that are likely easily preventable.

“They keep going into a war zone when they go to school because nobody will understand what they’re going through,” said Jeanette Nekota, whose 29-year-old dyslexic daughter, a Ph.D. candidate, was once told she would never go to college.

According to HIDA, 25 percent of students identified as having a specific learning disability drop about of high school — 3.5 times the average rate. Moreover, 60 percent of the adolescents in substance abuse treatment programs have learning disabilities, HIDA data shows.

Taxpayers often also foot the bill for students whose dyslexia goes unsupported. An estimated $2 billion is spent each year on students who repeat a grade because they have reading problems, according to HIDA.

Dyslexic students make up a “highly at-risk population,” said Assets School Head Paul Singer, pointing out that children with dyslexia have often also been diagnosed with other learning disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or anxiety. (Mikasobe’s grandson and Torres’ sons all have ADHD, too.)

“They’re often on the outside looking in,” said Singer, who also has dyslexia. “They have a difficult time relating to peers because they’re intellectually at such a different place because their frame of reference is so different … It’s a double-edged sword being gifted.”

Assets’ mission is to serve dyslexic and other gifted students in an individualized, integrated learning environment.

The premise behind Assets is one that’s underscored among experts, advocates and parents alike: dyslexics are known to be highly intelligent and creative and often excel in society — as long as they get adequate support in school.

Roughly 95 percent of Assets’ seniors each year attend college after graduation, according to Singer. And many of them enrolled at Assets because they were not making passing grades at their previous schools — “not because these kids are failing, but because schools in general are failing the students,” Singer said.

Singer attributes the student success to the accommodations at the school, including the small student-teacher ratio. No class has more than eight students per teacher, Singer said. And teachers receive practical training to familiarize themselves with proven methodology and other skills necessary for working with dyslexic students.

According to Mikasobe, B.J. is thriving at Assets. Mikasobe regrets not being able to intervene earlier and still looks at her years battling B.J.’s public schools with contempt.

“I cry every time I think about it,” she said. “The handwriting was on the wall.”

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