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Concerns raised over district’s dyslexia response

By Heather Graves

GREEN BAY – An agenda item meant as a brief update for the school board sparked several parents to speak about what they see as shortcomings in the district’s dyslexia intervention practices.

Concerns centered around the district’s literacy practices in wake of the Assembly Bill 110, dyslexia legislation currently being discussed in Madison.

Described as the “invisible disability” and “the D-word that can’t be said,” frustration and emotion was obvious from parents who spoke to Green Bay school board members at their meeting Monday, Sept. 9.

“These are things that are invisible maybe to you because my son doesn’t look disabled – he looks like a typical 11-year-old,” said Janet Peaches district parent. “They say no children left behind – but is that real? It is a real need.”

The current legislation would require the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to create a guidebook for parents, teachers and administrators regarding dyslexia.

The bill passed the State Assembly and will soon be in front of the State Senate.

Board members discussed the legislation – which Board President Brenda Warren called the first step as a state to universally address dyslexia – and what the district is already doing to support students with the disability.

“There are truths to the case that we have not done enough yet,” said John Magas, associate superintendent of continuous improvement. “There is a lot we have been working on, there is a lot of things we have in place relating to our universal practices as well as what we are doing for chronological awareness at the early grade levels – but it is true we do not have the resources that we would need to serve every student related to literacy intervention.”

Magas said the district currently has a half-time literacy intervention position in each school, something he said the district could look into reevaluating.

“What I’m saying is we are doing many things, we have done many things and there are things left to do,” Magas said.

Amy Bahena-Ettner said her son has been struggling in school since kindergarten because he is dyslexic.

She said after years of asking for help for her son’s dyslexia, it took behavioral issues caused by his frustration with his unassisted learning disability to finally get her son the help he needed and deserved.

“It got to the point where he received a referral for behavior, and then he qualifies for extra support,” said Bahena-Ettner. “We need to refine our process for getting students help.”

Bahena-Ettner said her son’s entire educational career could have been different if help was available and offered when she asked for it.

“I’m feeling frustration and voicing it on behalf of my son and every other student sitting in the classroom that isn’t getting the support they need for a recognized learning disability,” Bahena-Ettner said. “But for some reason the D-word doesn’t exist, and I don’t know why. We need to be willing to say it. We need to be willing to name it. And we need to be willing to screen children and appropriately get them services for the deficits they have, so they can shine in all the strengths that they do have.”

Magas said the report Monday was meant to be a brief synopsis of where the district is in preparation of the assembly bill.

“I believe we are well prepared for what the bill will ask, I think we are ahead of the curve of what the bill will ask,” Magas said. “But the moral imperative to make sure we are doing whatever possible to serve every student is something that drives us very deeply and something we take very seriously, and we won’t stop until we are able to address the needs of every student.”

Magas said the district plans to create an advisory committee to look at its overall literacy program.

“We want it to be a combination of leadership, but also making sure we have all voices at the table and make sure it’s representative of teachers and parents and others who have concerns,” Magas said.

Bahena-Ettner said they have since moved out of the district and have found support, but as a parent of a child who struggled in the Green Bay Area Public School District for years, she felt the need to speak up for those struggling now.

“One in five children – in a classroom of 25, that’s five kids – are struggling with the same things my son went through,” Bahena-Ettner said. “I can not bear to think that this an acceptable risk for these kids’ futures. We need to do something more. We need to provide more services and more education for our staff and families.”

Magas said staff intend to reach out to all parents and advocates who spoke at Monday’s meeting to discuss with them their struggles and help address their needs the best they can.

“We are doing a lot of things already, but as long as there is one student underserved it is not enough,” Magas said.

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