Dyslexics face big hurdles to success in S.C.’s schools

Ethan Hanlon gets homework help from his grandfather, Terry Infinger, using flashcards to help the sixth-grader, who has dyslexia, to learn history.

Multiplication tables vexed Ethan Hanlon in the second grade. He seethed and banged his hands on his books, a rising frustration clouding his usually mild manner.

Ethan’s mother worried for her son. But his father understood.

Digging through childhood mementos, Bryce Hanlon pulled out his own yellowed report cards from the second grade and showed them to his son. Hanlon had wrestled mightily with basic mathematical operations, too, earning poor marks in his early years. And yet, once he conquered the basics, higher-level concepts opened up to him like flowers. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics and work as a professor at Charleston Southern University.

What Ethan and his father had in common was dyslexia, a reading disorder that can make it hard for people of normal or even extraordinary intelligence to spell, read words aloud and perform rote memorization.

Education advocates have said for years that the state of South Carolina does not do enough to address the specific needs of dyslexic students. The state does not screen its students for dyslexia or require training for teachers to address dyslexic children’s unique needs. As a result, some parents say their dyslexic children get lumped into one-size-fits-all reading programs that do little to help.

The Hanlons’ fight for Ethan’s education has only gotten harder since Ethan’s father passed away in 2013. Ethan lost his best friend, the man who built towering Lego models with him, and the person who understood him best. Ethan’s mother, Carmen Hanlon, was left to navigate the public schools and pay for private tutoring alone.

According to Hanlon, Charleston County school officials have been a great help and “very understanding” — but it’s not enough. Unable to get adequate one-on-one reading time for her son in school, Hanlon pays $150 a week for private tutors. On weekends, she and Ethan’s grandfather drill Ethan with homemade flashcards, and Ethan alternates all day between an hour of studying and an hour of rest.

The exhausting study regimen seems to work. Now in the sixth grade, Ethan is on the A-B honor roll at Charleston Charter School for Math and Science in Charleston.

“It is a hard road, and I always tell myself it’s twice as hard for Ethan,” Hanlon said.

Hanlon said she worries for parents of dyslexic children who don’t have the same resources or “little village” of support that she does.

“The thing that makes me sad is those children who don’t have someone advocating for them,” Hanlon said. “A lot of times it’s not diagnosed. If we hadn’t diagnosed him early on, we wouldn’t have been able to get the help early on.”

For families who can afford it, there is another option in dyslexic education.

Tucked away in a Mount Pleasant neighborhood, a private school called Trident Academy offers small classroom sizes, extensive one-on-one time and a staff trained in the Orton-Gillingham method of education for dyslexic children. Tuition costs $27,000 a year.

The Orton-Gillingham Approach, pioneered by a neuropsychiatrist and an educator in the 1930s, focuses on the basic phonetic building blocks of words and engages the senses of sight, hearing and touch. Students write letters in shaving cream on their desks, follow along in groups as a teacher reads aloud and pair off with a specialist to play phonics games.

Trident Academy interim Head Betsy Fanning said the school gives students the tools to succeed in a traditional classroom.

“Kids come here and they may have had harrowing experiences,” Fanning said. “You see the difference on their faces: They relax. They find out it’s OK to say a wrong word.”

Ellen Wilson sent her son Trey to Trident Academy two years ago. Like Hanlon, Wilson had her son tested for dyslexia at an early age, at her own expense. Going into kindergarten at a public school, she was told that her son could have 20 minutes of group reading time with a specialist every week but that it could take a few semesters of assessment before they offered more.

“We said, ‘We’re going in with a diagnosis. It’s not like we have to wait for a reading problem to come up,’ ” Wilson said. “Why do we have to wait three semesters?”

To help cover the cost of tuition at Trident, Wilson applied for and received the Palmetto Kids FIRST Scholarship, a $10,000 scholarship backed by state tax credits for donors.

“It works until something better comes along, which is a whole revamp of the system,” Wilson said.

State lawmakers in 2012 created a Dyslexia Task Force to come up with solutions for parents’ complaints.

The task force was made up of legislators, advocates and education leaders. It called on the state to identify students with dyslexia risk factors early on, to train educators to recognize and remediate dyslexia, and to mandate dyslexia training in state colleges’ education departments.

Advocates today say those recommendations have been largely ignored.

“Basically, nobody wants to put money into intervention, so we don’t have highly qualified people in our schools able to deal with this,” said Downing Child, a mother of a dyslexic child and Charleston member of the International Dyslexia Association’s South Carolina Branch.

Rep. Robert Brown, D-Hollywood; Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg; and Sen. Shane Martin, R-Pauline, the three task force members still serving in the General Assembly, did not return calls for comment last week.

While the Statehouse hasn’t taken up the cause of dyslexic students, S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said “things are improving” within the Department of Education.

Last summer, at its annual Research to Practice Institute that gives free training to teachers from around the state, the department offered a course in “multisensory instruction,” which Spearman said is similar to an Orton-Gillingham model, as well as training in the new Strategic Instruction Model.

“If children are not able to read or be successful in school, we need to make sure that we’ve got the strategies and schools in place to help every child,” Spearman said.

But when it comes to state law, Spearman said she will not push to mandate specific training for dyslexic education. “I think we have in place what we need,” Spearman said.

Sophia, the Hanlons’ gregarious Weimaraner, greets guests at the front door of their North Charleston home with a china-rattling bark. She and Ethan have just come in from the backyard for Ethan’s afternoon study session, and now he’s seated at the kitchen table with his tutor, Legos at his side and legs swinging below.

“I see all of the letters, but I pronounce them differently,” Ethan said, attempting to explain what happens when he looks at a page.

In some ways, the school system gives Ethan accommodations that his father never dreamed of. As part of Ethan’s federally mandated Individualized Education Program (IEP), teachers give him extra time to complete assignments. When he takes a test, a school employee sits beside him and writes down answers that he gives orally (he also has dysgraphia, which makes it difficult to write legibly).

And although the state does not require educators to receive any training for teaching dyslexic students, the Hanlons got lucky when Ethan arrived at middle school. A resource teacher who happened to be trained in Orton-Gillingham now meets with Ethan three times a week.

Hanlon said parents of dyslexic students have to be tireless advocates to get the kind of resources her son has. Her current battle: Getting the school to provide an upgraded iPad for Ethan’s voice-to-text apps and other learning tools. “Yes, I am that helicopter mother,” she said.

Ethan will never outgrow his dyslexia, but he can find his strengths. He picked up basic algebraic concepts easily, and he has also discovered the joy of working with his hands — he swells with pride as he recounts fixing a power window on the car with his grandfather.

For Hanlon, Ethan’s quirks and struggles sometimes summon up memories of her husband. These things won’t go away, even as her soft-spoken son grows bolder, taller and brighter by the day.

Some of Hanlon’s questions about her son have been answered. Others linger.

“Which college do we go to next? The SAT is more reading-based,” Hanlon said. “It’s a constant thing where you have to protect your child who has special needs. He doesn’t want his mother always protecting him, but sometimes there are things that have to be done.”

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.