Three years ago, a scrappy group of parents and educators launched the first Dyslexia Day at the State Capitol in a small conference room, offering moving testimony from children who said their schools couldn’t help them.
On Tuesday, the advocacy group’s annual rally spread across the Capitol rotunda, where several hundred parents and children called attention to a hidden disability that affects as many as one in 10 children.
Dyslexia wasn’t even recognized as a specific learning disability by the Minnesota Department of Education until 2015. Children who spoke at Tuesday’s rally said they wished schools understood more.
“I wish teachers knew I am working two times harder than you think I am,” said Tryg Berger, a fifth-grader from Hugo, standing at the podium and looking at the crowd. “I wish teachers knew that I am not trying to make you mad. That I am paying attention.”
Tryg was among a series of children, parents and legislators who took the microphone to promote this year’s legislative agenda for Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota. It includes requiring schools to boost efforts to identify kids with dyslexia, provide reading instruction that meets their needs, and prepare teachers for the task.
The children, standing on stools at the podium, shared how lonely it is to be the kid in the class who can’t read, how they depend on tutors from outside the school to put them on track.
Parents shared their frustration over the many schools with no staff trained in the structured reading programs that help students with dyslexia.
And lawmakers, some acknowledging they or their family members have dyslexia, pledged to support legislation to fund teacher training on proven reading methods for dyslexic students and strengthen schools’ process for identifying and intervening with students.
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, chairwoman of the Senate E-12 Finance Committee, said as a former teacher she understands the struggles of children with dyslexia. She pledged her support.
“I am glad you are here to lift the fog around dyslexia,” Nelson told the crowd.
Rachel Berger, chairwoman of Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota, said she’s been heartened — but not surprised — by the growth of the dyslexia advocacy. Thousands of Minnesota students are out there struggling, she said, and thanks to social media, parents can finally find each other and organize.
Plus many Minnesota legislators have been open to the message, she said, “and are beginning to understand the depths of it.”
“We’ve responded to more than 500 public inquiries for resources and support,” Berger said. “That’s a lot of parents and teachers coming to us, saying, ‘We need help.’ ”
The rally included dozens of children holding handmade signs. They shared their stories about trying hard in school, especially with reading and spelling.
“Dyslexia is hard: I wish teachers knew how to teach me,” said one young girl taking the podium.
Legislators shared their own stories. Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul explained that he struggled to read as a child, too.
“I was a quiet child ... because of my inability to read at an early age,” said Hawj. “If I had told a friend that I would become a state legislator, they would say I was crazy.”
Decoding Dyslexia is supporting bills introduced in the House and Senate to give grant dollars to teachers seeking professional development in dyslexia, designate a dyslexia/literacy specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education to support school districts, and identify students who have dyslexia and provide alternative instruction that is proven effective in teaching them to read.
That instruction, an incremental, phonics-based system, is proven effective for many struggling readers, advocates say. Unfortunately, very few teachers are trained in it.
Sonia Waters, an Edina mother who brought her fourth-grade daughter to the rally, said she couldn’t believe her school did not have a single teacher who understood this basic reading strategy.
“I can’t believe it is 2017, and we are just figuring this out,” she said.
The Senate E-12 Policy Committee heard testimony from some of the parents and children at an afternoon hearing on the bill.
“I thought it was a great day,’’ said Berger. “We had a fabulous turnout. We had a great hearing — and we have more hearings to go.”