February 24, 2015
Mississippi faces a lot of challenges. Our education and economy consistently rank among the lowest in the nation. But I sincerely believe our state can overcome this. And I believe, without regard to any political views whatsoever, that it starts with education.
My eight-year-old son Ian entered public school in kindergarten in 2012. After just two weeks, his teacher told us that he was significantly behind his classmates. He was labeled “developmentally delayed” by the district dyslexia coordinator, but by Christmas, we began to consider the possibility that Ian might actually be dyslexic, despite what the coordinator claimed. Because our district isn’t properly screening students for dyslexia (like the state law requires for K-1 students), we had to go outside the district to get Ian tested, which led to an eventual diagnosis of severe dyslexia.
But now that we had that diagnosis, the district had no idea what to do with it. So I talked with teachers, staff and faculty. I went to every school board meeting and even sat down with the superintendent. The teachers and principals at Ian’s school are wonderful, but they haven’t been given the proper training on how to teach dyslexic students. When we try to present this issue in the district office, we are typically met with apathy or condescension. The district has no idea what to do, in spite of us offering recommendations and pointing them towards information provided by dyslexic specialists.
So let me take a second to explain dyslexia. The Mayo Clinic gives this clinical definition: “Dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words.” To dig a bit deeper, the reason dyslexics have that difficulty is because they typically process that kind of information through the right side of their brain first, instead of the more common left-brain initial processing. I explain this, because the research on this has been done. The material to help dyslexics decode the information exists and is readily accessible.
While Ian processes information differently, he still expects—and deserves—his teachers to help him learn to the best of his ability. It’s not okay to let him slip through the cracks just because he learns differently. Especially when there are so many resources available for teachers to teach students with dyslexia.
Today, Ian is in second grade. He has an IEP, but he’s still not receiving the education services he needs to keep up with his peers. The district claims it is meeting his needs, however, data collected by the school to show milestones and progress for my son show that he is significantly below proficient by more than 1000 points!
We’re a middle class family. My husband and I both work. We can’t home school because of our work, and we don’t have the resources to pay for private school tuition. Yet every year, thousands of dollars from state and local taxes are used to pay for Ian’s tuition at the local public school in a district that will not meet his needs and apathetically dismisses our questions and concerns.
This is why we are excited about new legislation, The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, which recently took big steps in the Mississippi House and Senate. If passed, this SB 2695 would create Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) to allow families like mine to select the best education possible for their students with disabilities. Families would be able to use funds designated for their child to pay for things like tutoring, therapies, private school tuition, textbooks, online classes and even public school services.
Last year, The Clarion-Ledger reported that a mere 23 percent of Mississippi students with disabilities earn a high school diploma. This legacy of failure needs to stop. My Ian can’t wait for the entire system to get better. This state has waited for over 40 years for the Mississippi Department of Education to actually address the educational issues facing our special needs students. This legislation is the first step in allowing us to skip the inadequacy and failure of the public education system, and hopefully motivate them to fix the issues.
Our disability is dyslexia. This is a hereditary trait. There is a 50-50 chance that my next child will have dyslexia, and the same goes for my future grandchildren. A learning difference should not define their abilities or dreams. I want them—and every Mississippi student—to have access to an education that equips them to achieve the greatest version of themselves, whatever that may be.
Mississippi is tired of fighting for last place. Let’s change things. Let’s start with education. If we can start fixing the problems there, the other ones will start to fix themselves.
Katie McCustion and her husband, John, live in Tupelo, Mississippi. They are the parents of eight-year-old Ian and a new baby girl due to arrive in July.