Struggling readers get help from both sides of Legislature

Members of the Decoding Dyslexia board, from left, Erin Florin, Heather Smythe, Rachel Berger and Lyn Haselmann. All are moms with dyslexic children in White Bear Lake area schools.

ST. PAUL — Thanks to a few local moms-turned-lobbyists and area legislators, historic legislation to help dyslexic and other struggling readers was included in the 2019 Education Omnibus bill. 

Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill May 30. 

Working in bi-partisan fashion, the House and Senate Education Conference Committee members agreed on two provisions supported by literacy advocates across the state. One of those groups is Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota, a nonprofit founded seven years ago by Rachel Berger, a Hugo mom determined to make a change for all children struggling to read. 

“The legislation will identify students early and match them to services rather than waiting until third grade when they're failing because they can't read,” Berger said.   

Starting July 1, 2020, all public schools in Minnesota must screen any student in grades K-2 who are not reading at grade level, for signs of dyslexia. Schools must screen students in third grade or higher that are not reading at grade level for signs of dyslexia if another reason for reading failure has not been identified. 

Starting June 1, 2020, teacher preparation programs in Minnesota must explicitly teach to future elementary school teachers the signs of dyslexia and provide them instruction in evidence-based reading instruction methods.

Berger said passage of these provisions, “will significantly impact reading proficiency rates for all Minnesota students and will begin to ensure equity and accessibility within our educational environments for both educators and their students.”

Testifying on their children's behalf were board members Erin Florin, Vadnais Heights; Heather Smythe, White Bear Lake; and Lyn Haselmann, White Bear Township. All have dyslexic children in the White Bear Lake Area school district. 

In the past, parents have been told their children “aren't failing enough,” so they don't qualify for remedial resources, according to Haselmann. “We would have to wait until they were two years behind their peers before they'd qualify. Now we don't.” 

Now that laws are in place, it will be interesting to see how much will be implemented, noted Florin. Time will tell of course, but Berger feels the group has done “a solid job” to raise awareness to the issue.

When she first started her advocacy work, Berger said the word dyslexia was alien. “Now it's a buzz word everywhere at the Capitol. We've been approached by many policymakers who want to carry bills because they have a personal, vested interest.”

From 17 to 20 percent of the population is impacted by the ability to read the printed word, according to the women. The prevalence makes it highly likely a teacher will have at least one dyslexic student in their classroom. 

“Dyslexia doesn't have to be a disability,” Florin stated.

The women singled out Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes) who championed their cause this session by co-authoring bills on teacher training. 

For more on dyslexia, see www.decodingdyslexiamn.org. 

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