We publish this Op. Ed. penned by Manchester resident Dr. Travis Harker regarding the proposed layoff of the teachers responsible for Manchester’s Multi Sensory Reading Program.  Feel free to share your comments or submit your thoughts for publication.  ~Publis

As a family doctor, screening tests are a very important part of the work I do.  I screen my patients for conditions, like cystic fibrosis, which affects 1 in 2500 children, colon cancer, which affects 1 out of 21 adults, and autism, which affects 1 out of 68 children, because they are common and there are ways we can help improve the health and wellbeing of people who screen positive.  In medical school, I was taught about these conditions and many others which benefit from early screening and detection.  However, it was not until my own daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia in the 4th grade that I learned about this condition that affects 1 in 10 children.  It turns out most school teachers do not learn about dyslexia either.  As a result, doctors and teachers routinely fail to recognize the signs of dyslexia, and people with dyslexia often do not get the help they need early enough.   

So what is dyslexia? Dyslexia is a lifelong condition that makes it difficult for people to read. It is the most common learning issue and is mainly a difficulty with reading accurately and fluently.  Some say it is like a bad cell phone connection between the letters on a page and the brain.  It is important to know that while dyslexia impacts learning, it is not a problem of intelligence. Kids with dyslexia are just as smart as their peers. Many people have struggled with dyslexia and have gone on to have successful careers. 

The good news is, beginning this fall, all New Hampshire kindergartners or first graders will be screened for dyslexia thanks to a law passed last year.  It took over two years for my daughter to be identified with dyslexia because screening was not happening in schools when she started grade school.  Because of this delay, she grew frustrated with school and could not figure out why the other kids had such an easy time reading when it was so hard for her.  In fact by the end of 4th grade she said she was done with reading because despite giving 110% effort, she continued to fall further behind her classmates.  I feared her love of learning was extinguished.   

Early screening makes a world of difference because the sooner children with dyslexia receive the right teaching approach, called “multisensory instruction,” the better they do in school.  After three weeks of this approach, my daughter surprised me by saying that she might actually like reading and after nearly two years of multisensory instruction she enjoys reading and is thriving in school.  

The US Supreme Court’s 8-0 decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District ruled that schools are obligated to do more than the minimum for children in special education.  In the decision, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”  In other words, schools must do all they can to help children with learning differences reach their full potential. 

This fall, screening will likely identify dyslexia in 200 kindergartners and first graders in Manchester.  Since delayed identification of dyslexia is no longer an option, and shooting for the minimum is no longer acceptable, the Mayor, Board of School Committee, and the Superintendent must answer how these children will be served under the proposed budget which slashes special education spending and lays off three multisensory reading teachers skilled at teaching dyslexic children.  In truth, the Superintendent’s proposal will not work for children like my daughter.  Manchester needs to invest in early support for dyslexic children – it is the law.  Not doing so could open the district up to costly lawsuits.  More importantly, we must support Manchester’s 1 in 10 students who have dyslexia and need the right kind of help to succeed in reading, to assure their success in later learning, and in life.  It is the right thing to do.

Travis Harker, M.D., M.P.H., is a family doctor in Concord, New Hampshire.  He cares for children and adults, and his patients inspire him with their strength, grit and humor.  Harker is an advocate for improving health care for those who are left out or overlooked. That includes people with mental illness and children with learning and attention issues.

For more articles written by Dr. Harker on this topic, click the links below.