Stories and Resources to Help Central Florida Families
When her daughter Piper started preschool, Megan Dennis noticed that she was having trouble with rhyming words and difficulty while transitioning from task to task. Then in kindergarten, Piper was assigned a reading specialist because she wasn’t progressing along with the other children. Megan wasn’t overly concerned. She knew that children often learned to read at their own pace. But by the middle of first grade, Megan knew something wasn’t right as she watched Piper continue to struggle.
Homework time with Piper became synonymous with fidgeting and an abundance of tears. Despite empty reassurances from her daughter’s teachers, Megan’s instinct led her to seek additional help. She hired a tutor for Piper, and then during the summer before second grade, Piper was identified as dyslexic through a private evaluation by Marsha Seff, a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist (NCSP).
Piper returned to school that fall but barely made it through second grade, where she was placed in the lowest reading group and continued to struggle. It became clear that Piper needed more frequent and consistent support that her current school wasn’t able to provide. At the end of Piper’s second grade school year, Megan decided to move her daughter to a school where she could get the attention she needed in an environment that employed an approach that would benefit Piper. And that move produced immediate results. Piper is a thriving, successful and happy third-grader at the Park School in Winter Park.
Unfortunately, Piper’s story is not an isolated case. According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, 20% of the population has dyslexia, which accounts for 80–90% of all those with learning disabilities.
Another Central Florida family who requested anonymity is also on a journey to help their son, who was recently identified as dyslexic. During kindergarten, his teacher noticed that he was particularly fidgety in class and lacked focus. He had trouble copying from the board, was not able to read aloud and had illegible handwriting. His parents took him to Dr. Maria Cely, a developmental behavioral pediatrician located in Orlando, who gave them a preliminary diagnosis of dyslexia and provided a doctor’s note for the school. Without an official diagnosis, though, the private school he attended was not able to provide a formal education plan.
So, the family took matters into their own hands and had their son tested by Dr. Alicia Braccia at the Center for Health, Learning & Achievement in Lake Mary, where he was officially confirmed as dyslexic. The visit to the testing center lasted about four hours and was not covered by insurance, so the family had to pay almost $1,000 out-of-pocket for the testing, report and a customized plan, but they believe it was well worth the cost. They now have a personalized plan for their son, which they have shared with his school. Additionally, they have hired a private tutor who works with him once a week using the Orton-Gillingham approach (more on this later). They have seen remarkable results in their son’s academic performance as well as increased self-confidence.
Of the 20% of people living with dyslexia, many have not been identified and therefore aren’t receiving much-needed support. Some unidentified students may be labeled as lazy, disruptive or unintelligent when, in fact, the opposite is true. Dyslexia is a learning difference with inherent advantages. Individuals with dyslexia tend to be highly intelligent and possess strengths and skills that will benefit them in many ways. While they may struggle with reading and writing, they excel at spatial reasoning, which is needed for architecture and engineering. They are visual thinkers, which leads to artistic endeavors. Interconnected reasoning is a strength that is exceptionally helpful for an attorney. They are wonderful storytellers, like Steven Spielberg, who has dyslexia as well.
The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Dyslexia will often overlap with dysgraphia, which is also a language-literacy disability pertaining to writing by hand.
Dyslexia can’t be cured, but with the right support, dyslexic individuals can become highly successful students and adults. Finding the right support isn’t always easy, as Megan Dennis found out. In Central Florida, there are only two schools that have an accredited associate of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators (AOGPE). They are The Christ School in Downtown Orlando and the Park School in Winter Park.
Both of these schools employ the Orton-Gillingham (OG) approach, the gold standard for teaching reading and writing. The OG approach, as defined on the Orton Academy website, is a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic and prescriptive way to teach literacy when reading, writing and spelling do not come easily to individuals, such as those with dyslexia.
The Christ School is a private K–8 Christian school that will celebrate its 25th year in August 2020. The staff at The Christ School understands the importance of including all students in the OG approach, which benefits all learners, not just those with dyslexia. Alissa Plaisance, Director of Student Support at The Christ School, says, “What is crucial for children with dyslexia sets a firm foundation for all.”
At The Christ School, they focus on the four C’s: creative problem-solving, communication, critical thinking and collaboration. These are strengths of many dyslexic learners and essential skills for all students. For students with dyslexia, the school provides small-group, specialized instruction to ensure their individual needs are met. All students are welcome to apply to The Christ School, and financial support is available for families in need.
The Park School was founded in 2019 by Mary-Elizabeth Langston and Jennifer Disch after years of working with families at Engage the Brain, a locally owned and operated organization that offers tutoring, educational consulting and homeschooling options.
Langston, who is also the Instructional Director at the Park School, is passionate about helping students feel successful where they haven’t felt successful before. She says the OG approach is highly effective because of the way it teaches reading and writing. It is all about the relationship that teachers build with their students as they guide them through the insanity of the English language. Langston says, “You are a constant in their life who sees them and understands the inherent advantages of the dyslexic mind.”
To be considered for enrollment at the Park School, students need to be diagnosed as dyslexic. There are many opportunities for financial assistance, including scholarships from the REED (Reading Education Endowment for Dyslexia) Charitable Foundation. This foundation provides scholarships to help support both dyslexic students and educators who are committed to educating them. Langston encourages any parent who has questions or wants to learn more to reach out for additional information.
Megan Dennis hopes that other parents will hear her story and know that there are resources available if they suspect their child has dyslexia. And her hope for Piper? That one day she will be able to stand up and advocate for herself.
Dyslexia Help Resources in Central Florida:
Here’s a list of vetted resources that can help your family navigate through diagnosis and provide educational support.
The Christ School
106 E. Church St., Orlando
1600 S. Orlando Ave., Winter Park
The REED Charitable Foundation
Engage the Brain
1778 N. Park Ave., Maitland
Dr. Alicia Braccia
Center for Health, Learning & Achievement
Dr. Krista M. Marchman
Educational Consulting Associates, Inc.
Spelman Reading & Language Center