One student’s dyslexia changed how a community viewed learning

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, we look at a unique reading program that has had remarkable results in one Florida community.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports from Vero Beach.

JOHN TULENKO: This is a story about parents making a difference, how a mother's experience united an entire community and transformed the way children learn in school.

It starts 10 years ago here in Vero Beach, Florida, when Liz Woody's son Mason was in third grade and hadn't learned to read.

MASON WOODY: Looking at a book, I always used to pretend I could read it.  Walking into a classroom, I knew that I would probably eventually be called on.  I was really nervous and scared.  I just felt totally lost.

JOHN TULENKO: He tried to keep his dyslexia hidden, but on the inside, Mason was coming apart.

LIZ WOODY: He became very anxious, very depressed.  You're desperate as a parent when you're in that situation.  And you're afraid.  I mean, it is pure fear.  My job was to help him, and I had no idea how to help him.

JOHN TULENKO: Help would come, but it wouldn't be easy.  As it happened, Liz had heard about a school called Odyssey that promised to reach students with dyslexia through their physical senses.  It didn't matter that it was in Baltimore.  She moved the family.

MASON WOODY: It was great, first year, total change.  The teachers helped me a lot.  They understood how I learned or how I needed to be taught, very hands-on, very kinesthetic.  But it changed my life for the better, and I thank Odyssey every day for that.

LIZ WOODY: That is a long haul.

JOHN TULENKO: His mother was grateful, too, but knew there were many other families still struggling just as they had, with no help in sight.

LIZ WOODY: Why are we keeping that locked up in these schools that have had to learn how to reach the hardest to teach?  They have had to develop methods in these programs.  They have had to invest in their teachers in training them.  Why are we keeping it there?

JOHN TULENKO: To the learn the techniques herself, she earned a master's in learning disabilities and returned to Vero Beach.  There, she met Barbara Hammond, a management consultant, whose son at the time was struggling in kindergarten.

BARBARA HAMMOND: The teacher said, oh, he's not paying attention, he's not doing what I ask.  And when I tried to explore what she meant by that, she couldn't answer it.

When I would talk to Liz about it, Liz actually could start pulling it apart.  Liz is there talking to me and we sort of looked at each other and said, we need to start something.  No mom should have to leave.  We want to bring affordable tutoring to kids who are struggling.

JOHN TULENKO: In Vero Beach, where 13 elementary schools serve a diverse population, they had in mind helping the roughly 10 percent of students diagnosed with a learning disability.

And to pay for tutoring, they approached a local philanthropist with a keen interest in education, Ray Oglethorpe, the former president of AOL.

Do you remember when they first came to you?

RAY OGLETHORPE: Yes, I do.  I remember it very well, because it's cost me a lot of money.


JOHN TULENKO: But, at the start, Oglethorpe pushed the mothers to think bigger.  That was in 2009, when a national test showed two-thirds of fourth graders in Florida and elsewhere were reading below grade level.

RAY OGLETHORPE: People couldn't believe the statistic.  They thought we were making it up.  The sad part is, if you can't read by the end of the third grade, you only have one in seven chance of ever catching up.  Boy, that's a lot of kids that are falling through the cracks that we have got to turn the situation around.

LIZ WOODY: That kind of knocked us over.  And we said, whoa, wait a minute, this is not — this is much bigger than what we thought and we have to figure out how to solve this problem.

JOHN TULENKO: Instead of tutoring the small number of students furthest behind, they set out to transform reading instruction for all children in Vero Beach.

WOMAN: Arms out straight, and we're going to write it in the air.

JOHN TULENKO: Getting kids out of their seats and using all their senses, especially touch and movement, to teach reading, the same approach that had been the breakthrough for Liz Woody's son Mason.

MASON WOODY: I remember this one activity we had to do.  We had shaving cream, and you would put it on the table, and you mix it around, and you would have to write a word out.  You felt it, you visualized it.  And that helped me a lot.

KIM SMITH: It's faster, better connections in the brain by teaching it in a multisensory, direct way.

JOHN TULENKO: We met Kim Smith at Highlands Elementary in Vero Beach.

KIM SMITH: Elbows up.  Ready, tap, dash.

Fingers are tapping each individual sound.  You have the most nerve endings in your fingertips besides your lips.  We don't need to do anything on our lips, so we use our fingers.

WOMAN: So, we tap them together first.  They say them, and then they create the word or make the word on their board.

JOHN TULENKO: Wendy Wedlake (ph):

WOMAN: And it's much easier as a teacher then for me to pinpoint who is getting it and who isn't.

You ready?

JOHN TULENKO: You said you have been teaching for 14 years.  Surely you knew some of this stuff.

WOMAN: I did, but not in this way.  Everything that we're doing now was really brand-new to me, the glued sounds, the bonus letters, the diagraphs.

JOHN TULENKO: How did you get through 14 years of teaching without knowing…


WOMAN: I tell you…


JOHN TULENKO: Most elementary teachers take only a few basic courses in reading instruction.

BARBARA HAMMOND: Our universities aren't preparing them.  The teachers don't know, unless they're special-ed and have been very specially trained, why, when a child is not successful in front of them, why it's breaking down.

JOHN TULENKO: So you're saying, we don't have a reading problem; we have a teaching of reading problem.

BARBARA HAMMOND: Yes, the real question we have been on since the beginning is, what is the gap in knowledge?  What do the teachers need to know and what do they actually know and how do we fill that gap?

JOHN TULENKO: Their answer?  Starting four years ago, Liz Woody began offering teachers free comprehensive workshops on techniques to reach struggling readers, including the multisensory approach.

LIZ WOODY: Understand what the child struggles with.

JOHN TULENKO: To date, 56 elementary student teachers have completed the months-long training.  Like Kim Smith on the left, these master reading coaches, as they're called, have gone back to their schools to share what they have learned with hundreds more.

And responding to teachers, Liz Woody's training now includes strategies to help children cope when learning to read becomes frustrating.

LIZ WOODY: What we brought was a program that first teaches the teachers how to control their emotions, but then bring that understanding to the children themselves.

JOHN TULENKO: And none of this training has been mandatory.

RAY OGLETHORPE: That's the key thing.  The teachers, the master coaches, the school district, they're all volunteering.  The principals are volunteering for this stuff.  If this stuff didn't work, they wouldn't be doing it.

JOHN TULENKO: Early results show reading scores have improved by 10 percent.  And to keep up momentum, the district recently adopted a goal, that, by 2018, 90 percent of third graders will be reading above the national average.  They call it the moon shot moment, and new donors and supporters are approaching the goal from all different angles.

RAY OGLETHORPE: Now it's up to 41, 50-some community partners who are focusing on getting ready for kindergarten.  We have other partners focusing on absenteeism, other partners working with on the summer reading blocks.  We have physicians, pediatricians helping us getting the kids healthy.

It's just wonderful to see, all of a sudden, this community rallying around this one single issue called the moon shot moment.

JOHN TULENKO: And so what started as one mother's search for a solution for her son has united a town and just may turn around an entire school system.