Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

It Took a Mother

In 1980, a young mother walked into Hindman Settlement School’s administrative offices. She seemed desperate and downtrodden. “My son has dyslexia,” she told the director. “I have dyslexia. The school is not able to help him in the way he needs it. What can you do?” The “you” quickly became a “we” who stepped up to help her son—and then many, many more like him.

Today Hindman Settlement School remains the leader in dyslexia intervention and education in Central Appalachia and has never turned away a child because of their family’s inability to pay for services. We provide a community-based approach to specialized rural education for children with reading challenges.

The statistics on what happens to children with learning challenges are sobering if not downright depressing. These children are much less likely to graduate from high school. They also are much more likely to be incarcerated — the juvenile justice system is filled, nearly to a person, with children who don’t learn typically. And the need is immense. An estimated 15-20% of the population has some degree of dyslexia. In Appalachian Kentucky, the number of dyslexic students is thought to be 25-30%, because of a combination of dyslexia’s genetic quality and notably fewer family lines than in larger cities like Lexington and Louisville

Our experience suggests the prevalence of dyslexia is even greater in our area. Hindman has been conducting universal kindergarten screening for dyslexia characteristics for several years now, so we can intervene before children experience reading failure in their classrooms. We identified 18-20% of students with a possible diagnosis of dyslexia in 2018, but in 2019 this number jumped to 42%, with one of our Knott County elementary schools school facing a 70% indicator among its kindergarten students.

Across Kentucky, over 40% of students completing third grade struggle to read at grade level. While there are other reasons for their lagging performance, the relationship between poor outcomes and a student’s inability to read proficiently because of dyslexia is too common to be coincidental.

We now know how children with dyslexia learn to read and comprehend what they’ve read. In the early grades, children learn to read. Beyond third grade, they read to learn. How can we, as a commonwealth, stand by and allow our children to jump into the deep end without the necessary skills to survive the learning environment that we have created and that we have the power to change?

Hindman Settlement School was pleased to advise lawmakers last year on HB187, which finally adequately defines dyslexia and creates a plan to provide teachers and teachers-in-training the tools they need to help children with dyslexia succeed before they fail. The statehouse has not yet gone far enough in requiring full implementation and providing funding, but this measure is an appropriate start.

The real solution is not all that difficult. We know what it takes to identify dyslexia among our kids; we know how teachers can create an appropriate and high-quality learning environment. Now we must have the courage to step up and stamp out the obstacles which remain so that others can do what Hindman Settlement School has been doing in southeast Kentucky for nearly four decades.

Schools should be moving mountains to assist students with dyslexia. All students can learn to read the way a dyslexia child learns to read, but dyslexic children do not easily learn to read the way our schools teach reading today. This is a simple shift. The Hindman model is replicable in other communities; at minimum, teachers, administrators, and parents should be creative and innovative in determining how they can make immediate impact in addressing needs of challenged readers in their own environments.

Our dyslexia program consists of four primary components: a reading lab (school-based) partnership with Knott County Schools; a regional after-school tutoring program in five counties; monthly screening and evaluation services; and a residential summer tutoring program. In just five weeks, our 45 summer participants this year gained, on average, one year and one month of reading ability. Five weeks of tutoring. Over a year of reading growth. A community-based approach. We can do this in Kentucky if we just have the will.

Hear from Matilda, a mother of one of our participants:

Until this year, her son Gavin had been bullied, made fun of and left out of many activities his entire school life, she says. During the summer tutoring program, Gavin developed a great deal of self-confidence. He now feels better about himself and he realizes he’s not the only one who struggles. His grades have improved from Cs, Ds and an F to nearly straight As. Gavin now has several friends, Matilda says, and is participating in many activities.

Although Matilda tried many different ways to help Gavin, nothing worked until they came to Hindman.

“The program at the Hindman Settlement School by far has been the best decision I’ve made for my child,” she says. “My only regret is that I did not find out about the program much sooner.”

Whether in 1980 or 2019, a mother’s persistence paid off for her child. But it shouldn’t be left solely on loving and determined moms to do what’s needed for Kentucky’s children. Let’s lock arms and do this!