When a student is diagnosed with dyslexia in Texas, state law requires school districts to provide accommodations and services to help that student. But getting those services depends entirely on a whether a school district recognizes the student’s learning disability – which affects their ability to read, write or spell. And some parents say sometimes it’s hard to get services they need.
Robbi Cooper lives in Austin. Her son, Ben, goes to school in upstate New York. Cooper’s son isn’t in college; he’s in seventh grade at a very prestigious boarding school for students with dyslexia.
"We’ve sent our son away from us," Cooper says. "That’s really hard for us, for me as a mother I struggle with it."
Cooper says her son was identified as dyslexic as a kindergartner at Cassis Elementary. She and her husband got him tested by a private doctor, but Cooper says it was a struggle to get the elementary school to recognize Ben’s dyslexia and provide remediation.
"It was suggested to hold him back and we just felt like 'why?' We don’t think this is going to go away. We wanted to address it proactively. And that’s where the schools and what we wanted started to diverge," Cooper says.
The school eventually provided services, but when Ben applied to magnet schools for middle school, he was rejected because his reading scores were too low, despite his very high math scores. That’s when the Coopers decided to send Ben to private school.
Dyslexia experts say 15 to 20 percent of the general population has some form of dyslexia. But the number of Central Texas school districts who reflect that statistic is low. In Austin ISD, 2,000 students have been identified with dyslexia out of about of 86,000. Five percent of students in Hays CISD have been identified, Georgetown ISD has identified 674 students – 6.5 percent of the student body – and Round Rock has identified nearly 800 students.
"To only identify 2,000 kids just shows [AISD is] not identifying," says Cooper, who says she's troubled by the low number of students.
In an email statement, AISD says it plans to roll out a new intervention program district wide to help identify kids with dyslexia between kindergarten and second grade, but Education advocates say the district has been slow to provide services to students.
“I believe we are missing a lot – a lot – of kids,” says Courtney Hoffman, a lobbyist for the Academic Language Therapy Association (ALTA). It’s a non-profit that certifies dyslexia therapists. She says a lack of funding and teacher training leads to under identification.
“It’s a real challenge to be in that classroom with 22 to 25 kids and not have instruction to identify.”
Others believe it's a matter of resources, or lack thereof.
“The law is robust, but there isn’t money allotted specifically for that. So, they have to set money aside and I think it’s an accountability thing. School Districts haven’t been held accountable by parents,” says Lyn Pollard, co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Texas, a grassroots organization in the state.
The Texas Education Agency hasn't held school districts accountable either.
For the first time this year, the TEA will require school districts to report how many students they have with dyslexia, even though Texas has had a law in place since 1985 that requires districts to serve those students.
“Whenever you’re held accountable and you have to report, you’re going to pay attention to what’s going on in that area of education," Hoffman says.
Pollard with Decoding Dyslexia says two private doctors have diagnosed her daughter with the disorder. Even still, she says the Richardson School District, outside Dallas, won’t identify her child as dyslexic.
“Even though we have this great law, I’m finding it’s very common for parents to have a very difficult time to get the schools to cover the kids under the law," Pollard says.
Richardson ISD says it sometimes doesn’t accept outside diagnoses because they can be incomplete or the doctor’s definition of dyslexia doesn’t align with the definition the district follows, which RISD says is based on the Texas Dyslexia Handbook. Parents and experts say getting dyslexia services for their children means intense advocacy.
“They go into war mode in order to get what they need for their child," says Hoffman. “ What we really need to think about are those kids who don’t have a parent who can be out there fighting to get the proper services. It’s very alarming when you think about that. The kids who don’t have those types of parents just check out.”
Experts say that can lead to failure and an increased chance of those students dropping out. A study from the University of Texas Medical Branch back in the year 2000 found nearly half of prisoners nationwide have dyslexia.
Roy Varney contributed to this report.