DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Micah Ripperger sat at his kitchen table recently as his mom helped him sound out words in a book.
“I want to know what this word is,” Christine Ripperger told her son. “You told me the sounds. Put them together.”
Micah, a fourth-grader at Resurrection Elementary School in Dubuque, figured out the word he was trying to read was “lost.” Then, his mom helped lead him through a full phrase.
“So you’ve lost your front teeth,” Micah read.
Micah is among an estimated 5% to 17.5% of the population who has dyslexia, a language-processing disorder that causes difficulties with reading.
Children like Micah have come into focus for Iowa lawmakers in recent years, prompting them to consider a bill to help schools better serve students with the disorder, according to the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.
Officials from area schools said they do not diagnose dyslexia. However, they seek to create special-education programs that help students with reading difficulties, whatever the cause.
“I don’t feel that our current system fails students with dyslexia,” said Brenda Duvel, executive director of special education for Dubuque Community Schools. “We’re meeting the needs of many students that have reading disabilities. Could we improve and learn more? Absolutely, we could.”
Late last year, an Iowa dyslexia task force released a report calling for legislators and educators “to make immediate and transformative action to support students with characteristics of dyslexia.”
Members of the task force found that families struggle to obtain evaluations for dyslexia and that educators might not have the necessary expertise.
Educators told the task force that they needed more resources to teach students with dyslexia and that some schools seemed resistant to acknowledge the disorder.
Last month, the Iowa Senate passed a bill to establish a state dyslexia board and an advanced dyslexia specialist endorsement. Area education agencies would be required to employ dyslexia specialists.
“This is legislation that’s going to be looking at all kids and how do we help each of our kids to live into their best life and become their best learner?” said state Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque, who is on the subcommittee examining the bill in the state House of Representatives.
Lawmakers in other states also are putting a focus on dyslexia, with the subject coming up in both the Wisconsin and Illinois legislatures this year.
In Iowa, students don’t need a specific diagnosis to qualify for special-education services, said Duvel. So students don’t have to be diagnosed with dyslexia to receive additional support.
Any program the district adopts is based on evidence-based research, Duvel said, noting that the district uses programs endorsed for students with dyslexia.
While having more information about a diagnosis is never a bad thing, she believes educators are able to get students the support they need with or without dyslexia diagnoses.
“We have lots of kids that have … lower-level support all the way to very-intensive support and plans in order to support them in the area of reading,” she said.
Kathleen Konrardy, special education coordinator for Holy Family Catholic Schools in Dubuque, said it is helpful to have an official diagnosis.
“If we have students we know have dyslexia … then we can put some of those things in place,” she said.
Tara Notz, director of professional development and student learning for the Maquoketa (Iowa) Community School District, said her district has focused on increasing support for reading instruction that helps students who have challenges.
“The more support and resources and specialized teachers that we have, I think it’s going to be a positive thing for our students,” she said.
As her son was struggling to meet developmental milestones, Christine Ripperger sought an evaluation. He eventually was diagnosed with dyslexia, as well as dysgraphia and dyscalculia, which causes issues with writing and math, respectively.
For part of kindergarten, Micah dual-enrolled at Resurrection and Bryant Elementary School in Dubuque because staff at the public school offered a program that would help her son with his dyslexia.
The arrangement did not last long, however, because the timing of the services shifted and Ripperger was told Micah would miss too much classroom work. A teacher at Resurrection later received training to work with Micah so he could be enrolled full time at that school.
Though Ripperger and Micah have navigated some challenges over the years, this year, they have a system of support that works well.
In addition to receiving reading services, Micah has several accommodations, like using text-to-speech and speech-to-text functions on his computer and a scribe to help write on worksheets for him.
“That’s pretty much what dyslexia is, the ability to see things differently,” Micah said. “You look at something, (and) this is how you see it with your eyes, but your brain looks at it differently … so that’s why you need to learn differently.”