Moms with a Mission

They've got an ambitious plan to help Manhattan students who struggle with a learning disability

| 23 Jan 2020 | 03:40

A group of moms hope to start a school for dyslexic children in Manhattan.

They applied to the Department of Education (DOE) to open a school for kids with the learning disability in November. They made it through the early steps and last week were among several groups who participated in a DOE workshop to help them develop their plans.

“It was really an exciting day all around for all of the teams,” said Emily Hellstrom, who serves on the board of Community Education Council District 2 and is chair of the Students with Disabilities Committee. “It was really about supporting all the groups equally.” More DOE workshops are planned for February and March.

Working with Hellstrom on the dyslexia proposal are Akeela Azcuy, a psychologist, Ruth Genn, an education leader and nonprofit executive, Jeannine Kiely, chair of Community Board 2 Schools and Education Committee and Democratic District Leader, and Freya Sakamoto, who tutors children with literacy issues.

All but Sakamoto have children with dyslexia, and all agree that there is a need for a school dedicated to students with dyslexia. “I feel pretty strongly that the New York City public school system is not providing the instruction that dyslexic students need,” said Sakamoto, who has tutored children for many years and has seen firsthand how kids with dyslexia struggle in school.

Special Methods for Special Students

Hellstrom, whose son is in sixth grade, said the idea for the school grew out of a panel discussion on dyslexia that she and Kiely put together last year, where Sakamoto spoke.

She said that the two proven methods of teaching students with dyslexia, the Hochman Method and Orton-Gillingham Approach aren’t used in most public schools or taught properly.

The Hochman Method is a set of specific writing strategies that teachers use in every grade and in all subjects. The Orton-Gillingham Approach to reading instruction was developed in the early-20th century. It is language-based, multisensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive, and flexible.

“These are the proven scientific teaching methods of teaching children with dyslexia,” Hellstrom said.

Sakamoto explained that many schools focus on what's called the "three-cueing system" to teach reading, a method she said "encourages students to guess instead of sounding out and using the knowledge of phonics which they have been taught explicitly.”

While the women have never founded a school, Hellstrom said that with their educational backgrounds they are ready for the challenge. They have the support of four district superintendents, she said, and have met with experts in the field.

A Challenge and a Blessing

Seeking advice, the women recently spoke with Tim Castanza, executive director of Bridge Preparatory Charter School in Staten Island, the only school for dyslexic kids in the state.

Castanza told Straus News that operating a school, let alone one for children with dyslexia, is no easy task. He said he told the moms that operating such a school has been a challenge and a blessing.

“I encouraged them to really take their time to really do this the right way,” Castanza said. “The potential for what they’re going to do, just like we do here in Staten Island, is incredible. They’re going to change lives.”

According to Hellstrom, having a school that caters to kids with dyslexia might help prevent what she called the “school to prison pipeline.” She said about 60 to 80 percent of the people in prisons have some type of learning problem. More schools like the one they hope to open could help keep people out of the criminal justice system

“One of the things that we really know about these methods,’ she said, “is that once you give the students the foundation and skills in order to read and write, they quickly go back into a mainstream setting with support and thrive.”

While Hellstrom isn’t sure how many students their school will enroll, she said they want to serve as a model for other schools. “It’s very clear to us that this needs to happen throughout the system and that this shouldn’t be the only one,” she said. As for the location, they hope to utilize a 100,000 square foot building that New York University has set aside on Bleecker Street, the former site of the Morton Williams supermarket.