BY TONY WEST/ A freshman State Representative is usually happy to get along quietly in the new club, maybe picking up a few administrative chores for the elders.
State Rep. Ed Neilson (D-Northeast) is hoping to make a difference in the lives of 250,000 children. His HB 198 proposes to fund pilot programs in three school systems statewide to provide mass screening for dyslexia and deliver interventions to get affected students reading up to grade level.
Neilson knows this can be done. His son Ryan is dyslexic. A bright kid, he nevertheless did poorly in school because he couldnâ€™t read well. And he was miserable. â€œWhen you see that as a parent, it frustrates you because you donâ€™t know what is wrong,â€ Neilson said.
But the Neilsons found their way to the Philadelphia Masonic Learning Center, which uses a method called the Orton-Gillingham approach. After 10 months of intensive work there, Ryan was able to read on his own above grade level at age 7. (Orton-Gillingham is a two-year model.)
Dyslexia is a learning disorder, but it largely stands apart from other issues like attention-deficit disorder and intellectual disabilities. It is a difficulty in seeing the shapes of letters and learning to associate them with the sounds that make up words. By some estimates, up to 20% of children deal with it to some degree.
It is a special-education need, recognized and funded by school systems â€“ but not really, said Neilson. The Pennsylvania Dept. of Education has special funding for reading needs but none specifically for dyslexia.
State Rep. Rosita Youngblood (D-Northwest), who has seen dyslexia in her family, reported at a recent House Policy Committee hearing that effective intervention in dyslexia is apt to cost $30,000-60,000. â€œIt is a complex problem,â€ she stated. â€œThere are three different kinds of dyslexia. It has nothing to do with race, nothing to do with poverty, nothing to do with intelligence.â€
Many public-school families find it goes undiagnosed and many special-ed teachers donâ€™t know what to do about it. Even if they do, successful interventions are time- and labor-intensive.
But they make a difference, insisted Neilson. â€œResearch finds this is what causes a lot of problems,â€ he explained. â€œThe guy whoâ€™s disrupting the classroom, who is full of anger, who falls through the cracks, who drops out, may be dyslexic. Studies suggest 40% of the prison population might be dyslexic.â€
But dyslexics can be intelligent and become successful, in school and in life.
Jonathan Celli, a student at Widener University and a graduate of a Masonic Learning Center in Lancaster Co., wrote to Neilson in support of HB 198 that its program had spared him from being held back a grade.
Now, he wrote, â€œI am very proud to be writing to you as a Presidential Scholar completing my sophomore year. I achieved that distinction after an 1830 SAT score that included a perfect score on the writing portion of the examâ€¦. These doors would not have opened to me had I been retained and offering me the same instructional methodologies that did not work again and again, been the path I was forced to followâ€¦. You see, I was only â€˜disabledâ€™ within a system that did not make the curriculum available to me in a way I could access it.â€
As a lowly freshman â€“ and a member of the minority at that â€“ Neilson faced an uphill battle to advance any legislation. His first step, he noted, was he â€œwent to the pros and said, â€˜Tell me how I can help kids; help me write this issue.â€™â€
They recommended starting with a set of pilot programs. Before any effort is made to seek across-the-board statewide funding, legislators need proof that successful models exist in public-school settings and that they can be cost-effective.
Step two was to find Republican cosponsors and Senate sponsors. When HB 198 was introduced on Apr. 18, 2013, a year after Neilsonâ€™s arrival in the House after a special election, it had 75 cosponsors, including many from across the aisle, led by State Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R-Delaware). It passed the House on Sep. 24.
In the State Senate, Neilson found a partner in Sen. Sean Wiley (D-Erie). He introduced a companion bill, SB 873, on Jun. 5. It enjoyed 37 cosponsors; since the Senate only has 50 members, that was a sign it was a done deal. But the Senate Appropriations Committee is still working on the bill; Neilson says that body has greatly improved it.
Aiding bipartisan outreach was the Masonic Caucus in Harrisburg. Dyslexia is a signature issue for the Masons. But their own charitable programs are under great cost pressure. Two had to close last year, Neilson said.
There is a reasonable chance Neilsonâ€™s measure will become law by the end of this coming June.
Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has expressed support for this legislation and is likely to sign it. When Corbett came out in favor of it, Neilson stood beside him in public to thank him.
â€œI took some criticism from other Democrats,â€ he recalled. â€œBut this issue goes beyond party. This is about the kids.â€