For more than a decade, Girasol Margain faced an uphill battle navigating multiple public school systems in San Antonio with three children who would each eventually be diagnosed with dyslexia.
“My first child made it all the way through second grade, and one week before the end of the year, the teacher said they were recommending retention,” she said. “I didn’t even know anything was wrong before that.”
That fight to keep her son from being held back was the first of many, with barriers to obtaining a diagnosis, receiving proper support, and ensuring that teachers and specialists had the proper training.
Years later, in 2022, she took her eldest daughter to a pilot concept for a school focused entirely on educating students who have the learning disorder that makes it hard to learn how to read. Held in the DoSeum Children’s Museum along Broadway by the nonprofit Celebrate Dyslexia, leaders of the event hoped to help students learn to read in a multi-sensory environment.
The pilot was a success, according to the CEO and founder of the nonprofit, Jasmin Dean, who is also a parent of children with dyslexia, and Margain, who said her daughter left feeling seen in a way she hadn’t before. But the pilot program only lasted for a couple of days.
Now, that experience is expanding into the Celebrate Dyslexia Charter School, which will welcome its first cohort of 112 students in kindergarten through second grade to the same DoSeum campus on August 12.
The open enrollment charter school will accept any students that apply, but will be uniquely equipped to help students with the learning disability, officials said.
Enrollment for the school is open online, and a lottery for seats will be held on March 29.
School in a museum
Flor Gutiérrez, another parent who navigated the frustrating process of obtaining a diagnosis and support for a child with dyslexia, is the founding superintendent of the school. When she couldn’t find the therapists necessary to help her daughter, she went back to school and became one herself.
Walking around the DoSeum on a recent weekday, she watched children pushing toy cars along a simulated street in a “Tiny Town” exhibit, where other children were “shopping” with small carts and a realistic grocery aisle, complete with food labels and a checkout line.
“We envision the school day as being kind of like the Magic School Bus [children’s television show],” she said. “They always start in the lab or the classroom, and then they go through a portal and go and experience those abstract concepts in a multi-sensory way.”
Exhibits at the museum will allow for Celebrate Dyslexia students to have lessons on social studies, science, technology, art and more.
Students will complete more traditional classwork and individualized support during the peak museum hours, while exploring the other parts of the facility during less busy times and on Tuesdays when the museum is closed to the public.
Dan Menelly, CEO of the DoSeum, said that the new school’s mission matches that of his organization, which also has its own early childhood education program.
“At the onset of our discussion with Jasmin and the Celebrate Dyslexia planning team, we saw a great potential to help support the progression of this exciting model,” he said. “As we come to better understand the uniqueness of each young learner’s profile, we feel it is important to support the development of promising exploratory models like Celebrate Dyslexia’s.”
Lessons will also incorporate features of the exhibits in unique ways.
One exhibit in the museum, for example, has a complex web of vacuum tubes, with light, colorful balls that students can watch zip through the system and pop out at another location. The same room has a stream of air that students can use to levitate two of the same balls at a time.
Gutiérrez recalled how teachers during the Celebrate Dyslexia pilot program would ask students to gather the number of balls corresponding to the sounds in the word “cat,” for example.
“Kuh, ah, t,” she said, enunciating the syllables. The lesson is an example of the kind of systemic instruction needed to break down the parts of a word and later associate the sounds with the letters on a page, also known as grapheme-phoneme correspondence.
Dean, the founder of the nonprofit that created the school, called the public charter school a “milestone in dyslexia education.”
Teachers at the school will be highly trained in academic language therapy, giving them tools to help students with the basic building blocks of learning to read and comprehend. With the unique environment, Dean said students will have a much better starting point in their education and beyond.
“We know that when our kids leave the dyslexia therapy classroom, they don’t leave their dyslexia,” she said.” It carries with them through every single subject.”
In response to community needs, the school applied for a waiver to accept students in kindergarten through second grade instead of just second grade as initially planned.
“It is an optimal gift … to have such a great foundation at the right time in their life, to be getting this intensive opportunity to learn how to read by a trained professional, who understands the nuances of dyslexia, and the way to implement instruction for students with dyslexia,” she said.
According to Dean, the school will add grades in future years through sixth grade and could move into a more permanent campus later on, but such plans still need to be finalized.
The dyslexia experience
In addition to serving the students enrolled in the school, the nonprofit Celebrate Dyslexia continues to focus on spreading awareness and improving service for students with dyslexia across the K-12 educational system.
One way they have done this is through a simulation that shows how difficult reading can be when you have dyslexia. Simera Nichols-Bray, whose daughter Ally has dyslexia, went through the program recently after enrolling her daughter for a spot at the school. She said the experience was heartbreaking.
“Just to sit in those shoes and to imagine how hard it was for her to struggle,” Nichols-Bray said, her voice breaking: “You think it is just reading something with letters backwards, but it’s not. It is like trying to read Chinese.”
Margain also went through the simulation and had a similarly emotional response to how hard of an experience it was. While her children are too old to enroll in the school now, Margain said the concept would have been an “answer to her prayers.”
The organization also provides a parent academy, which breaks down the Dyslexia Handbook, a state-published handbook that details the ins and outs of navigating education with dyslexia.
While the school is a starting place for many students, Dean said she hopes it sparks broader momentum in shifting the way reading is taught.
A dent in the reading problem
While only 112 students will be participating in the program starting next fall, countless students across the San Antonio region are likely struggling with reading disorders and are not receiving the support they need.
In the charter application accepted last year by the Texas Education Agency, Celebrate Dyslexia cited research that shows that as many as one in five students have dyslexia.
According to the same application, only 4.5% of students in Education Service Center Region 20, which includes San Antonio, have been diagnosed officially with the condition.
Since reading is the key to unlock learning in almost every other subject, this trend is troubling to advocates and teachers. Those statistics could account, in part, for the low reading scores that have appeared in standardized test scores for the region in recent years.
To help amplify the impact of the school, the charter will partner with UTSA to help inform the next generation of teachers on how to spot the signs of dyslexia and better understand how children learn to read.
UTSA student teachers will have an opportunity to complete clinical learning at the school as part of the partnership with more possibilities being explored, according to Claudia Treviño García, an associate professor in the bicultural-bilingual studies department and board member for the new school.
Nichols-Bray, who is also in the process of seeking a diagnosis for her other child, said that even if she doesn’t secure a spot at the school through the lottery, she has found a support system through the organization and is hopeful for the future of dyslexia education in San Antonio.
“How can we just have this now, when it is one in five?” she said. “But I am feeling incredibly blessed that it has come here and it has come now.”