Eighteen months after Mayor Eric Adams pledged to transform the landscape for children with dyslexia, the administration has released few plans on help for older students struggling to read.
Parents and educators say they have seen little to no improvement in the public school system’s ability to help middle and high schoolers with dyslexia. Meanwhile, efforts to better identify and support elementary school students with the learning disability are underway.
For more than a month, Gothamist has asked the education department for details on initiatives to assist middle and high school students who show signs of dyslexia. The department’s press office declined comment.
Older students with dyslexia face difficulties reading that can affect the rest of their lives.
Sharline, whose son Ajani is 14 and in eighth grade at a public school in the Bronx, said Ajani reads at a fourth grade level. She said the education department has neglected his learning disability for nearly a decade despite her persistent pleas for more support.
Sharline’s struggles with getting her son help are even more striking given her line of work – she’s a New York City public school teacher.
“He genuinely just could not understand the work that was in front of him – basic instruction,” said Sharline, who asked her last name not be published because it could affect her job.
Despite being employed by the school system, Sharline found the system to get her son help overwhelming and impossible to navigate. “I’ve been fighting with the DOE,” she said. “No one helps.
Sharline, who is outraged by her son’s treatment, felt that her pleas to teachers, principals and superintendents over years only resulted in her being passed from one educator or bureaucrat to another.
“It’s a revolving door. No one helps. They just pass you along,” Sharline said. “It’s a disservice to my son. This could have been something that we could have tackled early on. He could have received the services that he needed.”
Sharline is now taking legal action against the education department, seeking reimbursement for private tutoring. Like many parents of students with dyslexia, she questions whether her son’s school can serve him at all, and is considering sending him to private school. But she worries it may be too late.
“Some damages just can’t be undone,” she said.
In September, Gothamist examined efforts by Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks to reform a system that has long failed students with dyslexia.
A top Adams priority
In May 2022, Adams and Banks announced the “largest, most comprehensive approach to supporting students with dyslexia in the United States.” They promised all New York City public school students would be “assessed for being at-risk of dyslexia, be supported in their neighborhood school, and receive specialized instruction through the development of special programs and academies.”
“By changing the way we approach dyslexia, we can unlock the untapped potential in students who may feel insecure about their dyslexia or any other language-based learning disabilities they may have,” Adams said at the time.
Since then, the education department’s efforts have largely focused on elementary schoolers, with pilot programs for students with dyslexia in the early grades and a sweeping literacy curriculum overhaul underway.
While the education department declined to share any information on efforts to assist older kids with the learning disability, multiple educators and advocates said the administration has yet to provide widespread support, or even a blueprint, for the upper grades.
Officials promised a program last school year where 80 elementary schools and 80 middle schools assessed students for reading challenges and offered coaching support for teachers.
But that particular program was discontinued this year. One Bronx principal who had been part of the initiative said he had to dig into his own budget to maintain the additional support for students who need help reading. He did not want to use his name because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
“There is less support at the middle school level to address these challenges than there has been over the last several years,” he said.
Meanwhile, officials have promised universal dyslexia screenings of students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
According to the education news website Chalkbeat NY, only 1,500 of the school system’s more than 900,000 students were screened last year, but officials promise to expand the screenings to all elementary schools and just 50 middle and high school schools this year. There are more than 800 middle and high schools in the city.
The Adams administration has not released the results of its dyslexia screenings.
Years asking for reading help
Dyslexia involves difficulties matching sounds with letters. Experts estimate that anywhere from 5% to 20% of students have the language-based learning disability.
Across the city, only 48% of sixth graders scored proficient on the most recent state test scores in English Language Arts. Only 60% of eighth graders were proficient.
Sharline’s experience has been particularly frustrating. She said the Department of Education first evaluated her son when he was around 5 years old, after she noticed he was reversing letters. In that first evaluation, Ajani was diagnosed with a speech impairment, but nothing else.
As he got older, Sharline noticed that his difficulties intensified. “He struggled a lot with just understanding the basic words that he was reading and why they were there,” she said.
A review of a neuropsychiatrist’s evaluation of Ajani shows he repeated second grade and was placed in an Integrated Co-Teaching classroom, which has two teachers, including one special education instructor, and serves a mix of students, some of whom have learning disabilities. The school provided him with some occupational therapy to help with his handwriting. But it did not offer him additional reading support. None of his teachers ever said anything about a reading disability or dyslexia, Sharline said.
“He was kind of just passed in the grade, and they just did the bare minimum for him. They really didn’t give him the services he needed,” she said.
Now, having repeated a grade, he’s a head taller than his classmates, and four or more years behind them academically.
Last year, a colleague – another teacher – mentioned to Sharline that she could contact a lawyer for assistance. The lawyer connected her to a neuropsychologist for a private evaluation, which identified dyslexia, a math disability, and a language disorder.
“The Department of Education had all of eight years to work with Ajani and have consistently failed to provide him appropriate services,” said Sharline’s lawyer Nelson Mar, senior staff attorney at Bronx Legal Services. “As this case demonstrates, there’s really not much for students with dyslexia who are older, especially in middle and high school.”
Ajani has taken his diagnosis in stride.
Unlike so many kids with dyslexia, whose frustration prompts them to act out in class, Sharline said her son is well-behaved and well-liked. “He’s very respectful. He’s never gotten into a fight ever. Not even an argument with a student in school,” she said. “I don’t even have to bang on the door early in the morning. I knock a few times and he’s up and ready for school,” she said.
“He’s a really positive kid,” she said. “He keeps a smile on his face and he tries his best.”
But Sharline wants so much more for him. She wants him to be able to read, to go to college, to love education the way she does.
In a brief call, Ajani told Gothamist “I read perfectly fine.” But his mother said he was tearing up as he spoke.
Sharline said students with disabilities, like her son, are not receiving the education they deserve. “They are constantly overlooked,” she said.