Croll ColumnBy Chris Croll
A group of Loudoun teens recently traveled to Richmond to meet with their elected officials to teach them about dyslexia, dyscalculia and other learning differences.
Organized by the group Decoding Dyslexia, a parent-led grassroots movement concerned with the limited educational interventions for dyslexia within the public education system, the teens visited with several members of the General Assembly during their tour of the Virginia State Capitol. The teens say they wanted to put a face on these learning differences and to personally lobby support for several bills being considered by the General Assembly that relate to mandating early screenings and greater support for students with disabilities.
“Today they don’t really start testing you until you’re in third grade,” said Rayhan, age 14, who organized the Richmond trip and was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD and dysgraphia at the end of third grade. “School was an absolute nightmare for me—a dream I could never wake up from,” he says, referring to the years before his diagnosis. “They need to give the kids the tests and screens early to find out,” added Fletcher, also age 14, who has dyscalculia which, he explains means, “I work at a slower pace and I struggle with math.”
Educators at Fusion Academy Loudoun, the private secondary school where Fletcher and Rayhan are middle school students, agree that the current “wait to fail” approach hurts children who could benefit from early interventions. Mandatory screenings in Kindergarten and First Grade would provide parents and teachers the opportunity to help students stay on pace with their peers if their learning difficulties were uncovered during their first few years of school.
The students emphasized to their representatives that having a learning difference doesn’t mean you aren’t smart. “I’m actually pretty great at math,” Rayhan says. The brains of dyslexics work differently than typical brains which, experts agree, can be an advantage for some. Kathryn Snyder, another Fusion student diagnosed with dyslexia, wrote in a recent paper, “40% of multi-millionaires and 35% of entrepreneurs are dyslexic including Steve Jobs, Leonardo Da Vinci, Tom Cruise and Walt Disney.”
Students at Fusion succeed in part because the school offers a 1:1 student to teacher ratio. “Individualized attention allows students to learn in ways that work best for them,” says Meghan Marinos, Fusion Academy Loudoun’s Head of School.
The students described the trip to Richmond simply as “cool.” When asked what surprised them most, Fletcher said, “I expected their offices to be really nice with big leather couches, but they only had hard chairs to sit on and the ceilings were really low.” Rayhan was surprised that some of the Virginia delegates with whom they met were not at all familiar with dyslexia. “They didn’t even know what it was!” Rayhan said in disbelief. “And they didn’t know about the bills—one had to search them up on her computer. We were teaching them about their legislation.” The teens admitted that it felt good to be able to share their struggles with elected leaders.
Nancy Knor, one of Fusion Academy Loudoun’s Language Arts teachers added, “Had we had an opportunity to meet with more lawmakers, we would have had an even greater impact.” The students enjoyed the advocacy so much they want to go back down to Richmond again. Rayhan was encouraged by the warm reception they received at the state house. “I want to continue to work to change the laws to be better for people with dyslexia,” he said.
ATTENTION ALL LOUDOUN TEENS …
Meeting with young people this past year has inspired me to launch a “Column Takeover” where I dedicate my newspaper column each month to a student who bravely, and in their own words, shares what it’s really like to be a teenager growing up in Loudoun County. Any teens who are interested in writing their story can email me at BeingATeenInLoudoun@gmail.com.
[Chris Croll is a writer, community activist and former member of the Loudoun County School Board (Catoctin District). She lives in Leesburg with her husband and two children.]