ST. PAUL — October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, and a grassroots group largely responsible for pushing significant legislation through the Capitol reflects on its progress over the last nine years.
They've come a long way.
"It's crazy," exclaimed Rachel Berger, a Hugo mother of three who helped launch Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota (DDMN) back in 2013. "Whoever would have thought a group of mothers concerned about their children's educational needs can drive these things?"
The advocacy group's success story includes its most recent victory a few months back when the governor signed the LETRS Bill (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling). The landmark legislation provides $3 million to more than 1,500 state educators who will now begin to receive critically needed training on the science of reading.
The funds will help not just students who have dyslexia, but others as well, including non-native speakers who are struggling deeply with literacy, Berger said.
Key legislators who advocated for the LETRS Bill were Sen. Roger Chamberlain and Rep. Heather Edelson, who maintains the two-year funding bill will enhance education equity as students receive evidence-based lessons in literacy.
Community members brought together by students with dyslexia drove the start of DDMN and work at the Capitol to address the issue, said Berger, who is executive director of the nonprofit. Moms in the White Bear Area School District — Erin Florin, Vadnais Heights; Heather Smythe, White Bear Lake; and Lyn Haselmann, White Bear Township — have been an integral part of that work, she said. All have dyslexic children, three of whom attend White Bear Lake area schools.
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability often characterized by struggles with reading, spelling or writing. It is not an intelligence or other cognitive abilities issue, but is neurological. An estimated 20% of the population struggles with dyslexia but only about 10% of individuals are identified and supported. The disability is heritable.
Dyslexia cannot be cured, but difficulties can be mitigated with proper reading instruction, explained Berger.
Funds for the special training will be administered through the Department of Education. "They're still ironing out how educators will access the grant," noted Berger. "They will be partnering with Voyager/Sopris to deliver the training, which is open to all districts with a priority on K-3."
Berger got involved in dyslexia advocacy in 2013 after seeing her father, brothers and son struggle with reading. She founded the nonprofit DDMN and was quickly joined by other mothers searching for educational interventions to their children's learning disabilities.
What they found is the type of training necessary for dyslexic students was not available in schools, forcing families to shoulder the financial burden of private tutors.
She credits the longevity of her volunteer board of directors and area representatives like Sen. Chamberlain who share the group's passion. "The wonderful thing about our organization is parents who are steadfast in ensuring their child's educational needs are met," Berger maintained.
Last week, the DDMN group saw a report card on how well school districts are adhering to new legal requirements. A bill passed in 2019 requires schools screen students for signs of dyslexia in grades K-2 who are not reading at grade level. Elementary teachers are also required to learn signs of dyslexia and receive instruction in evidence-based reading methods.
According to the Department of Education, 40% of Minnesota students are below acceptable reading/literacy standards. Dyslexia is the main driver behind the low rates. Only 5% of school children are diagnosed with a "specific learning disability," a category that includes dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Most of the children not reading proficiently by third grade remain below the standard by the time they finish high school.
Left untreated, dyslexic, illiterate youth are at greater risk of truancy and failing, according to the organization. Many do not attend college. Addiction rates are higher. Statistics show 80% of youth in the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate.
They still have a long way to go, however. "There isn't any one school district that has it entirely figured out," according to Berger. "But there are districts making solid efforts and strides. This bill helps enable them to move in the right direction for all students when it comes to literacy."
The tide will begin to turn on literacy in Minnesota, added the dyslexia advocate. "In 2001, the national reading panel appointed by the U.S. Congress recommended reading instruction based upon the science of reading. Like Mississippi, Tennessee and a handful of other states, Minnesota is placing a priority on evidence-based literacy instruction," Berger said. "Finally, 21 years later, we are starting to train our educators in how students best learn to read."
Parents can find resources at the organization's web page: decodingdyslexiamn.org. There are also monthly online chats via Zoom called Parent Talks. Find more on the group's Facebook page.