State lawmaker Erin Houchin knew early in her son’s schooling that he struggled to read. But it would be years before she’d know why.
“He would bring papers home and say, ‘I got every answer wrong because I couldn’t read it,’” said Houchin, a Republican senator from Salem.
Her school reassured her that her son was a “typical boy” — that he was smart, and he’d grow out of it. Still, for years, he continued to struggle. Finally, after visits with a specialist two hours from their home, several batteries of tests, and stress over insurance coverage, Houchin’s family found a doctor at Riley Hospital for Children.
“He knew within the first five minutes (my son) had dyslexia because he had a screening process that can tell in a couple minutes,” Houchin said. “There just really is not an adequate screening process; there is not an adequate diagnosis process. Kids are falling through the cracks because they are not getting the right diagnosis.”
Houchin hopes a bill she is proposing this year, Senate Bill 217, can put the right resources in schools so students get the help they need.
Dyslexia is a learning disability where people have trouble correctly interpreting letters and words when reading or speaking. It could affect as many as one in five people and is frequently passed down genetically. Although dyslexia makes it difficult for students learning to read, it can be managed with the proper strategies and coaching.
Research suggests that gaps in reading early on in elementary school can persist into high school if they are not addressed.
The bill would require all district and charter schools to employ a simple test with parental consent to identify whether students could be at-risk for dyslexia in grades K-2 and report the results to the state department of education. It would also require schools to specially train a reading teacher about dyslexia and educate all teachers about dyslexia by the 2019-20 school year. The state would hire a dyslexia specialist to coordinate efforts.
But the bill also comes with a cost. If more students are diagnosed with dyslexia, they could qualify for special education services, which brings a $2,300 per-student grant from the state, according to estimates from the Legislative Services Agency. Screening, training, and hiring additional staff could also bring extra costs for districts and charter schools.
After passing the Senate unanimously, the bill was amended Tuesday in the House Education Committee to reduce some of the potential costs, by allowing districts and charter schools to share services and seek a waiver from the bill’s requirements for up to a year. However, it’s still unclear exactly how much the proposal could cost schools and how much the state grant would offset.
Indiana has taken several small steps over the years to address dyslexia, including adding a definition for it in state law in 2015 and requiring colleges to train teachers to recognize it in students — but not necessarily how to teach students with it.
But this bill would represent a huge step forward, said Cheryl Clemens, co-leader of Decoding Dyslexia-IN, a group of parents and community members from across the state who want to raise awareness about dyslexia.
Clemens said students often have to wait several years to be diagnosed — a critical amount of time when they can fall behind their peers. As the mother of three children with dyslexia, Clemens was excited when Houchin came to her group about legislation after years of looking for more support.
“We are losing so many children,” Clemens said. “We are thrilled to have more legislative support.”
According to Decoding Dyslexia, 19 states have comprehensive dyslexia laws, which include provisions for screening, teacher training, pilot programs, or accommodations for students. Only nine states have a statewide dyslexia coordinator.
In her testimony to the Senate Education Committee, Clemens said she routinely encourages families who live near the Indiana-Ohio border to consider schools in Ohio, which has stronger dyslexia laws than Indiana.
“This bill will help to close the gap between Indiana’s current practices and what we know from current research,” Clemens said. “It will also help Indiana to catch up with other states in how we teach reading and other literacy skills.”
LeeAnn Bricker, a Zionsville parent of two children with dyslexia, said her oldest son, Alex, had a hard time reading for years before he was properly diagnosed. Once he finally began working with a tutor in second grade, he made a lot of progress — but he still struggles. Early intervention could change that, she said.
“Alex is currently a struggling freshman in high school who has to work three times as hard as his peers for one-half the gain,” Bricker said in her testimony to lawmakers. “I know the difference early identification and intervention make because what I didn’t know to help Alex, I now know to help my youngest son, Jacob.”
Bricker said when Alex finally learned he was dyslexic, it changed him.
“I just always thought I was stupid,” he told his mother.
“I really can’t handle even one more student suffering a journey like Alex’s,” Bricker said. “Imagine seven years of believing you are stupid.”