Louisiana Key Academy takes on dyslexia

Just a few steps away from a Piccadilly restaurant, Sarah Reling is working with her second-graders in a new kind of public school.

“So you have a vowel, two consonants and a silent ‘e,’ ” Reling said. “Is that vowel long or short?”

The lesson is part of a daily, intense focus on reading at the Louisiana Key Academy, a just-opened charter school that caters to children from kindergarten through second grade with dyslexia.

Students with dyslexia have trouble reading and difficulties recognizing words, which can have a devastating impact as they try to make their way through the school system.

“Everyone is at least one grade below in reading,” said Stephanie Davis, the school’s high-energy principal.

“We are highly specialized in reading intervention,” Davis said. “That is our whole focus, to help these babies read on grade level.”

Parents like Latoya Sampson, whose 8-year-old daughter Melanie is a second-grader at the school, can already see a difference.

“Last year she would come home and we would have to fight with her to do homework, fight to get her up and go to school,” Sampson said. “Now we don’t have to ask her twice in the morning. She is anxious to get to school. It is so special. It is phenomenal.”

The state has more than 100 charter schools used by nearly 60,000 students.

But state education officials said that, aside from a public school in Houma that caters to children with dyslexia, the Louisiana Key Academy is a rarity, either public or private.

The school won approval from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in March.

It attracted attention initially because it was pushed by Dr. Laura Cassidy, the president of the 12-member board that runs the school and the wife of U. S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge.

The academy is located in the Westmoreland Shopping Center on Government Street in Baton Rouge.

It is in a former antique store with about 10,000 square feet, nine classrooms, three half classrooms, a technology laboratory, a cafeteria/auditorium and a fenced-in play area.

Enrollment is about 120 students but may grow in the next week or two. The school’s cap is 138 students.

The plan is for the school to grow one grade per year for the next three years until it is a K-5.

Two posters just inside the front door make the point that dyslexia is anything but rare.

Pictures of Harrison Ford, George Washington, George Clooney and Albert Einstein greet visitors.

“What do these people have in common?” the words above the pictures say.

They all have or had dyslexia, as well as Joe Montana, John F. Kennedy and Muhammad Ali.

Children with reading problems may show one or more troubling signs at an early age, including trouble rhyming words, learning the alphabet, understanding what they read, expresssing themselves clearly and spelling.

Up to 20 percent of children and adults have dyslexia, including many who were never diagnosed and simply grappled with reading, math, science and other subjects as best they could.

“There are some students out there that I owe an apology to,” said Davis, a former teacher.

“They would come to me in fifth grade barely reading and I was not trained to do that,” she said. “We train you in kindergarten, really intense in first grade, second grade.”

After that, experts say, children often get pushed along, with school problems getting bigger and teachers unable to undo years of neglect.

Davis said the aim is, after a few years at the academy, students will be reading on grade level or beyond and can then move to a rank-and-file school.

Sampson said her daughter struggled last year at Woodlawn Elementary School.

“At Woodlawn I couldn’t work with the teacher,” she said. “Her teacher would not branch away and do anything for her.”

She added, “Melanie has been having problems with reading for a while. I was working with her at home and knew something wasn’t right.”

Lisa Tucker’s family has grappled with the issue for years to get assistance for her seventh-grade son Matthew, including finding a school that can help — he attends Baton Rouge Lutheran School — tutors and other issues. “It is quite expensive,” she said.

Matthew, like a lot of students with dyslexia, is a bright, outgoing child who does well in math, science and other subjects.

“It is just that they have this one problem,” Tucker said. “It is a lifetime struggle. It doesn’t go away.”

Davis, a veteran of teaching and other education jobs in the East Baton Parish school system, said what makes her school distinctive is the training of the teachers, the time spent on reading, individualized attention and frequent testing.

She said traditional public schools often have one or two teachers who are degreed reading specialists.

“Our entire faculty, every single one of them, has been trained in reading intervention,” Davis said. “So you are not just getting a hit or miss.”

Classes do not exceed 17 students.

Groups of six or so get special attention as needed, such as the small group that left Reling’s class shortly after it started.

Davis said traditional public schools in grades K-5 test at the beginning and end of the school year.

“We do assessment through various tests throughout the year in order to adjust interventions and teaching strategies to meet students’ needs,” she said in an email.

Reling spent part of a recent class holding up cards with letters on them that her students repeated.

“Q. Queen. Quah.”

“D. Dog. Dah.”

Minutes later khaki-clad students take turns “coding” words in front of the class.

The word “sense” was marked with a sign above the first “e” to show it is a short vowel, and a line through the final “e” to show it is silent.

Sampson said she loves hearing her daughter Melanie excitedly talking about the smaller classes, the attention she gets from teachers and how she understands the work better.

“It is a family, it is a community,” she said of the school.