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Fighting dyslexia: Educators gather to learn how to best help students

Education

IDAHO FALLS – Educators and others throughout the state gathered at Thunder Ridge High School in Idaho Falls Monday for day one of a weeklong training.

The training, hosted by the Institute of Multi-Sensory Education in Southfield, Michigan, is focused on helping teachers improve classroom instruction and reading proficiency for students with dyslexia or other learning disabilities.

This weeklong course comes months after the Idaho Legislature passed a bill requiring dyslexia screenings for K-5 students and professional development for teachers. How that legislation rolls out and is applied in Idaho schools is yet to be determined.

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“Until we get a new administration, a new superintendent of public instruction, nothing will happen,” Robin Zikmund, the founder of Decoding Dyslexia-Idaho, tells EastIdahoNews.com.

Decoding Dyslexia-Idaho is a state-sponsored chapter for a national nonprofit aimed at increasing awareness of and access to educational resources for dyslexia in public schools.

Zikmund worked closely with legislators in drafting House Bill 731. Though it was signed into law earlier this year, the proposal was met with backlash initially because of related legislation proposed by State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra that ultimately died.

Based on her previous interactions with Ybarra, Zikmund doesn’t believe her bill “will be rolled out effectively under the current administration.”

“I’m already having conversations with Debbie Critchfield (who was elected as the Republican nominee for State Superintendent in the May primary),” says Zikmund. “She’s incredibly supportive. She said to me, ‘Robin, there’s 10 (items) on my list of things to accomplish when I take office. Number one is dyslexia.'”

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For decades, Zikmund says dyslexia is something the state of Idaho has refused to acknowledge or talk about, despite the fact that it affects 1 in 5 people worldwide, according to DDID’s website.

Since the passage of the bill, Zikmund says interest is at an all-time high and she’s experienced a massive increase in calls from educators across Idaho asking what they can do to improve how dyslexia is handled in their school district.

Jessica Ziel and Tamara Nickerson, who work as reading coaches, wanted to understand “how to teach dyslexia better” and quickly discovered they weren’t the only ones.

That’s how this training at Thunder Ridge High School was born, which has attracted 53 participants.

“The training (which is unrelated to the dyslexia bill) would’ve (otherwise) been out of state or a 4-month online course, so it was serendipitous that we were able to get it to come here,” Ziel says.

It typically costs $1,300 per person and Nickerson says many of those in attendance paid for it at their own expense. Zikmund worked with several nonprofits to provide $15,000 in scholarships for some of the participants.

teachers in training
Fifty-three educators pose for a photo during the first day of training. | Robin Zikmund

Dealing with dyslexia

For many of the enrollees, teaching a child with dyslexia is a personal cause.

“I didn’t go to school to become an educator. I became an educator because of my son (who has dyslexia). So I spent all this time … figuring out how to help him and then I decided I might as well be a teacher and help other students,” Ziel explains.

Lisa Olsen, an English teacher at Thunder Ridge, was instrumental in selecting the high school as the venue for the training. She says early detection is one of the key elements in helping students with their education.

“On the high school level, (dyslexia) looks a little different because these students have coped for so long. Some of them have failed (classes) multiple times and there’s a lot of emotional issues these kids are dealing with,” Olsen says.

Olsen cites one student who can’t even read the lunch menu and would eat pizza every day because he didn’t know what else was available.

“He made the comment that he was just so tired of eating pizza,” says Olsen. “This is a smart kid. If you have a conversation with him, (he’s good at) critical thinking and is energetic and bright as can be.”

Students whom other teachers have called lazy because they weren’t doing their work came in to Olsen’s class and she saw indicators that the underlying issue was a lack of reading proficiency.

Zikmund spent thousands of dollars several years ago to learn why her then third-grade child was struggling in school. He’s now in eighth grade but reads at a first-grade level because the tools to detect it early were not available.

This cycle has affected many Idaho families for generations, Zikmund says, and she describes what happens to many kids whose reading problems go undetected.

“You’ve got an eighth grader who’s been made fun of because he can’t read,” she says. “He’s angry. He’s acting up in the classroom … and now we’ve got a mental health issue. They’re dropping out of school and ending up in juvenile detention centers.”

zikmund and friends
From left: Robin Zikmund, Tamara Nickerson, Lisa Olsen, Jessica Ziel and Kim Zeydel, Ph.D., a retired teacher and member of the DDID board who is dyslexic. | Robin Zikmund

Idahoans’ tax dollars are already being spent on juvenile detention, Zikmund says, and putting money towards catching dyslexia early would prevent a lot of problems down the road.

Regarding the training, Nickerson says there’s nothing like it in eastern Idaho and she’s hopeful it will be beneficial in providing teachers with additional resources they can use in the classroom.

“What I’m grateful for is that the state of Idaho has so many passionate teachers. The next step is to get equally passionate administrators … so that we can start reaching (every district in Idaho),” Zikmund says.

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