When public education doesn’t go far enough to help, some parents of children with dyslexia take matters into their own hands.
Dyslexia affects about 75,000 British Columbians. It can be a devastating learning disability that needs special instruction, which isn’t necessarily provided in public schools. To ensure their children have a bright, productive future parents are having to shell out thousands of dollars a year.
“He was starting to talk about hating himself,” said Kim Handley, whose eight-year-old son Marek has dyslexia. “He was so beat up emotionally he thought he was stupid. And we know he’s not.”
For the first time in his school career, Marek is finally enjoying going to school. He attends James Cameron School in Maple Ridge, one of several schools in the Metro Vancouver area that teach students with dyslexia by using proven methodologies that break down the language to help remap the child’s brain.
Principal Penny Shepherd-Hill says she believes in her pupils.
“My students have average to above-average intelligence,” she said. “They can learn to read, they can learn to write.”
Dyslexia Part 1: Children falling through the cracks
But unearthing that potential comes at a price that many find prohibitive. It costs about $16,000 a year to attend James Cameron School.
Many parents sacrifice to give their child a fighting chance. For Handley, that meant selling their home and downsizing as well as taking on extra work.
“We had to juggle the budget and really pull it down, and pare it down,” she said. “We’re not doing RRSP contributions any more, we’re not doing tax-free savings accounts or savings. Everything else has gone into here because it’s unfortunate that he needs this right now. If not we were going to lose him.”
Still most can’t afford a private specialized education, and the public system isn’t meeting the needs for those on the more profound end of the dyslexia spectrum. Some families decide to send their kids to dedicated tutors who utilize multi-sensory methods.
Coral Gallagher at Stepping 4words Learning Center in Port Moody has seen her business grow dramatically in the past few years, as families look for help in educating their children with dyslexia.
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“We are giving them the code to break down reading and spelling for them,” Gallagher said. “So that one-on-one instruction encompasses all the ways that we learn. So we all learn by seeing and hearing and tactile and by muscle movement, so we incorporate all those learning modalities into our lessons.”
Heather Parlongo says she scrimps and saves to pay for instruction at Stepping 4words, which costs $65 a session, to make sure her six-year-old daughter can read and write. She says the tutoring has been priceless.
READ MORE: This simulation shows what reading can be like when you have dyslexia
“She, after three weeks, wrote her name,” Parlongo said. “And on Mother’s Day wrote ‘mom’ on her card.”
The B.C. School Act states “a board must make available an educational program to all persons of school age.”
Those like Shepherd-Hill who deal with dyslexia say that’s not the case.
“The B.C. Ministry of Education professed to be inclusive, they adhere to an inclusive philosophy, but they don’t include our kids, because they’re not having access to the curriculum in a public education system,” she said. “And through no fault of the teacher, we don’t receive training on dyslexia in our teacher training. We don’t know how to identify it, we don’t learn how to ameliorate it.”
Education Minister Rob Fleming says he recognizes that.
Still, many parents fear their children with dyslexia will slip through the cracks.
Students with dyslexia are often quiet, their self-esteem eroded from struggling to make sense of words and letters on a page. They retreat, and don’t speak up, trying to get by with minimal understanding.
If they aren’t helped to crack the phoneme code they face a bleak future. Handley said she is determined to make sure that doesn’t happen with her son.
“It’s the difference between not being able to read and being able to read,” she said. “That’s all your doors for jobs like wide open all of a sudden. Could you imagine not being able to read as an adult? And if these kids don’t get that support that’s where they’re headed. Every child has the right to know how to read.”