Righting kids’ reading

Masons’ free Worcester center tackles growing problem of dyslexia
By Pamela H.  Sacks

WORCESTER — Cathy Cocaine was desperate to find an answer to her son’s unhappiness. Every morning, Nick was filled with anxiety as he headed off to school; every evening he dreaded the thought of tackling his homework.

Nick was bright, but he struggled with reading.

“He didn’t like school and he didn’t want to go,” Mrs. Cocaine said. “He’d say, `I don’t like it; I don’t get it.’ He dreaded it because it was so frustrating for him.”

At the end of second grade, Nick was given a series of tests, and Mrs. Cocaine and her husband, David, were able to put a label on the source of their son’s frustration: dyslexia.

The Millbury elementary school Nick attended provided some help. But he continued to flounder, so Mrs. Cocaine turned elsewhere for assistance. In fall 2001, her hopes were high. With her son’s school records and test scores, she approached an educator named Sally C. LaPlant.

Mrs. LaPlant had been named director of the Greater Worcester 32nd Masonic Learning Center for Children, which was about to open for business. The center would be dedicated to helping children with dyslexia free of charge. Nick became one of its inaugural pupils.

“It was almost an immediate change,” Mrs. Cocaine recalled. “Within six months, Nick’s frustration with homework improved and everything was so much better — his self-confidence and self-esteem. He was finally understanding things.”

On Monday, the center will start its third academic year. It does so at time when more attention is being focused on dyslexia, which affects a staggering number of boys and girls. The disorder is diagnosed in one in five children.

Recent research has shown a dyslexic has a different brain structure than a non-dyslexic, according to J. Thomas Viall, executive director of the International Dyslexia Association. The handicap is not associated with low intelligence. It varies in degree of severity and manifests itself in difficulty with reading, writing, spelling and sometimes arithmetic.

“People see a child who is perfectly normal, bright, engaging. They want to know, `Why can’t you read?’ ” Mr. Viall said.

A dyslexic can learn to read if given direct, explicit, sequential instruction, Mr. Viall said. Catching the problem early can mean circumventing a host of emotional and behavioral problems and pave the way for a productive and psychologically sound adulthood.

Nick, whose reading skills are now up to par for his grade level, has graduated from the center, but there are plenty of children to take his place. This year, Mrs. LaPlant has admitted 25 pupils from across Central Massachusetts and has put 12 more on a waiting list.

Yet being dyslexic seems to have its up side, researchers have found. Dyslexic people often are intuitive and creative. They tend toward visual, multidimensional thinking and are skilled problem solvers.

Mrs. Cocaine said Nick can fix anything. “When the projector is broken at school, they ask Nick,” she said. Thomas Edison, Agatha Christie and Walt Disney were dyslexic, which may help to explain their extraordinary accomplishments.

Nonetheless, the pain and frustration of trying to learn to read can leave a dyslexic with deep emotional scars. Studies show 70 percent of children who land in Juvenile Court have a learning disability and about half of them are dyslexic.

In the early 1990s, the Masons, a fraternal organization with a strong social bent, decided to tackle the problem of dyslexia.

“We have always been involved in societal issues and democratic values,” explained Howard Jacobson, vice chairman of the Worcester center’s board of governors. “Today, we have identified the well-being of children as relevant.”

The Scottish Rite Masons of the Northern Jurisdiction set a goal of establishing 55 learning centers to help dyslexic children in the 15 states, from Maine to Wisconsin, that composed its region. Based on the Masonic population in the state, Massachusetts was allotted two centers, one in Newtonville and another in Lowell. A third was opened at the Scottish Rite headquarters in Lexington.

Worcester-area Masons suspected that Central Massachusetts children might benefit from a center and asked Mrs. LaPlant, an elementary school teacher, to investigate. She found no shortage of demand.

The learning center is located on the first floor of the Masonic building on Ionic Avenue. The rooms are large and airy. A sign reads “The Future Begins Here.” The tutoring room is divided into six cubicles, all with neutral-colored walls and furniture designed to eliminate distractions.

Mrs. LaPlant said dyslexic people do not intuitively understand the structure of the language. They must be given specific decoding tools, moving from the simple to the complex.

Many of the children are in third grade through sixth grade, but Mrs. LaPlant would prefer to have seen them even sooner. The International Dyslexic Association strongly advocates universal screening to detect dyslexia at the earliest age possible.

The center uses a widely accepted method known as Orton-Gillingham, which consists of a series of systematic, logical, structured lesson plans with an emphasis on phonics.

“The routine builds security for a child,” Mrs. LaPlant said. “It’s very important because these children are so used to not knowing what’s going on.”

The children come after school twice a week and work with tutors for an hour. The sessions are one-on-one, and each starts with a review of where the child’s weaknesses lie, said Heather Davenport, a tutor. Together, they work on those problems.

“Even though there’s a structure to each lesson, it’s all individualized to the student,” Ms. Davenport said.

Last year, the children were tested in November using the Woodcock-Johnson Reading Mastery Test and then retested in April. Nearly all showed marked improvement.REAL GROWTH

“The tutors were so excited,” Mrs. LaPlant said. “When you can see real, measurable growth in testing scores, you say, `Wow.’ ”

Ms. Davenport, a former biology and environmental science teacher, said the work is rewarding because it has an impact on a child’s emotional well-being, as well as his or her academic performance.

“A big part of the training is recognizing the emotional component,” she said. “Our lessons are built around success. I like the fact that I can see the progress the kids make.”

The children seem equally appreciative.

Nick Cocaine missed one session in two years. “He was sick and he wanted to go,” Mrs. Cocaine recalled. “I told him, `You can’t infect everyone else.’ ”

Christopher Houston, a Northboro fifth-grader who is in his second year of tutoring, acted ho-hum when asked about the sessions. But his mother said his real feelings are different.

“The other day I was making an appointment with the orthodontist and Chris said, `No, I can’t go. I have to go to Worcester,’ ” Mrs. Houston said.

The kinds of sessions the center provides are not widely available. There are some pricey private schools dedicated to dyslexic children, but public schools are hampered by a lack of funding and resources. The Worcester schools use an approach known as the Wilson system, which is based on Orton-Gillingham but has been adapted to the classroom situation.

“We’re getting wonderful feedback from the public schools,” Mrs. LaPlant said. “Reading specialists and special education teachers are now urging parents to call the center. It’s been a process of getting to know us.”

None of this comes cheap, of course. It costs $5,000 to tutor a child for an academic year. The center’s annual budget of $125,000 must cover expenses for a calendar year, which includes a summer term.

The Massachusetts Grand Lodge of Masons has agreed to pay those operating costs for several years — a period in which the center must raise $2.5 million to ensure its future.$1 MILLION DRIVE

Worcester-area Masons have pledged to raise $1 million, and the center’s board of governors is working to obtain the other 60 percent from Central Massachusetts foundations and the general public. The effort will extend over the next three to five years.

“Daily, we get checks for $15 or $20,” Mrs. LaPlant said. “People want to do what they can.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. LaPlant, Ms. Davenport and other certified tutors are training more tutors. A trainee must complete 45 hours of seminars and a 100-hour practicum to gain certification. As is the case with the tutoring, the training is free.

“Without sounding phony or dramatic, what we’re doing is important,” Mrs. LaPlant said. “When you have parents come and say, `You’ve changed our life; after school is not spent fighting and in tears over homework.’ I feel really lucky to be able to do this.”