By Daniel O'Connell | Special Contributor 

There have been many studies in recent years on brain development. Much has been written about cognition and meta-cognition and many scholars and researchers have shared their own “thoughts about thinking.” One thing is certain: Each of us is a unique child of God, and each of our brains has developed differently – at varying rates and with distinct abilities.

In 2015, a generous donor reached out to the Department of Catholic Schools with an offer for dyslexia education. He contacted JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, and visited the Chancery to speak with the department about the growing need for dyslexia education. He and his wife generously offered to provide a grant for teachers to receive education in this matter.

Certainly, dyslexia is not a case of a lower intelligence level or a lack of an ability to learn. The simple fact of this complex matter is that those with dyslexia have brains that function in a different way. Teachers must be provided with the tools needed to tap into that “different way” of thinking help students with these challenges.

Activities such as reading and mathematics can often be a very frustrating challenge for children in school, which this donor had seen firsthand. He and his wife wanted to send their children to Catholic school because they believe in what it has to offer. Unfortunately, they could not find a school staffed with teachers equipped with the skills necessary to help children with dyslexia.

The Society for Neuroscience tells us that “in a world where reading and writing skills are in increasing demand, the impact of dyslexia on individuals – and on U.S. society – can be devastating. About 80 percent of learning disabled children eligible for special education services has significant reading difficulties, including dyslexia. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the high school dropout rate for students with learning disabilities is more than twice what it is for other students (36 percent compared with 14 percent). One study is currently tracing individuals from age 5 to their late 20s and will look at the costs of dyslexia to society as a whole, especially in terms of intervention costs and employment opportunities.”

In summer 2017, nine teachers from six schools of the Diocese attended a weeklong workshop at the Cooper Health System in the Orton-Gillingham Program in Voorhees to assist students with dyslexia and other reading challenges. The cost for this seminar was covered by funding provided to the Department of Catholic Schools.

This program was expanded in summer 2018. Kathryn Besheer, principal of Sacred Heart School, Mount Holly, who attended the seminar in 2017, decided to offer this workshop to members of her faculty and kindly opened this opportunity to all teachers in the Diocese. During the week of June 18, 37 teachers from 15 schools attended this workshop in Mount Holly led by David Katz, a fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Educators and Practitioners. Besheer used Title II funds, provided by the state, to fund most of the $5,000 needed. The Department of Catholic Schools provided financing to pay nearly $4,000 for the materials used in the course.

One of the participants, Jennifer Graja from St. Paul School, Princeton, shared, “The training that we received with David Katz was perhaps the best that I have ever taken part in. He was exceptional and provided all of the teachers with so many practical and targeted ways to improve language arts instruction at multiple levels. The time invested was so incredibly worth it. Our students will benefit greatly.”

Because the response to these workshops has been so positive, the Department of Catholic Schools has organized a program through which the teachers who attended these seminars can continue their studies to attain classroom teacher certification in the Orton-Gillingham Program. Twenty-five teachers have committed to participate in the practicum that will provide this certification.

This practicum brings with it a hefty price tag of more than $16,000; funding provided by the Department of Catholic Schools, the Foundation for Student Achievement and the Diocesan PTA will cover most of the cost. Each school participating school will be asked to submit a minimal amount to assist in making up the difference.

The Department of Catholic Schools currently plans on offering this program again next summer. While financially the cost may be high, this is most certainly a worthwhile cause that will make a true difference in the lives of many of our students for years to come.

Daniel O'Connell is associate director of curriculum for the Diocese.