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BOSTON—The worry nagged at Roxann Harvey from the time her children were in kindergarten. They couldn’t name all their letters, much less equate them with sounds. Teachers offered tepid assurances (some kids take longer than others) and frustrating advice (you should expose them to books).
But Harvey worked in a library, so both there and at home, each child had shelves full of books. Teachers insisted, “‘They will catch up,’” Harvey recalls. “I started to wonder if I was being irrational.”
Yet as kindergarten and then first grade passed by, her children, a girl and her younger brother, two grades apart, never caught up. The gap only grew. For years, Harvey pushed the school to provide her children with help from a specialist trained in a multisensory reading program that helps struggling readers make connections between words and sounds—a scarce resource in many Boston public schools. The entreaties went nowhere. “Let’s give it time,” the teachers told her.
For both of her children, it wasn’t until second grade that teachers finally grew concerned. For her son, the blithe assurances gave way to ominous warnings: “We’ll all be lucky if one day he’s able to read an article in the newspaper,” one teacher told her.
Harvey had already dropped out of her neuroscience doctorate to advocate for her children. Now she took a new job closer to home, too. “Our whole life had to change just to be focused on school and making sure my kids learned how to read.”
An estimated 5 to 15 percent of the population has dyslexia, a disorder that hinders a person’s ability to read efficiently.
An estimated 5 to 15 percent of the population has dyslexia, the most common language disability, which hinders a person’s ability to read words correctly and efficiently. But in Boston and countless other communities, Black and Latino families have a much harder time than their white peers accessing two key tools to literacy: an instructor trained in how best to teach struggling readers the connections between letters and sounds, or a private school focused on children with language disabilities. Nationally, these teachers and schools are scarce and coveted commodities, generally accessible only to those with time, money and experience navigating complicated, sometimes intransigent bureaucracies.
In recent years, some dyslexia activists across the country have joined forces with Black and Latino leaders distraught over unequal access—jointly positioning “the right to read” as a revived civil rights movement.
“A lot of people have started talking about dyslexia as a social justice issue,” said Nicole Patton-Terry, director of the Florida Center for Reading Research. “And you’re seeing them stand next to Black and brown folks who just want high quality education for their kids.”
In Boston, data show that both in the city’s private and public schools, white students have greater access than Black or Latino students to the most intensive, effective reading supports. In the public system, campuses with larger white student populations tend to employ significantly more teachers trained in programs designed specifically for students having difficulty learning to read, according to a Washington Post/Hechinger Report analysis of previously unreleased data obtained through an open records request last spring.
At the handful of schools with a majority white population, there’s an average of 3.5 such specialists. Schools with between 15 and 50 percent white students have two specialists, on average. And schools where fewer than 15 percent of students are white — the district average — employ just one such trained professional on average.
“Our whole life had to change just to be focused on school and making sure my kids learned how to read.”
Roxann Harvey, Boston parent
Overall, 82 percent of white students (excluding those attending schools that don’t have any elementary grades) have access to at least one specialist at their school, compared to 70 percent of Latino students and 61 percent of Black students. More than half of white students attend schools with two specialists, compared to 36 percent of Black and Latino students.
Boston public school students who struggle with reading are hugely reliant on these specialists because the district, unlike many others, has no known language-based programs or schools focused on reading remediation, said Elizabeth McIntyre, senior counsel at the EdLaw Project in Boston. The district does, however, have many separate classrooms for kids with behavior or emotional issues.
“I think the system is set up to identify kids of color who struggle to read as having emotional impairments instead of getting the academic support they need,” McIntyre said.
Dozens of Boston public school educators are currently receiving training in a specialized approach to reading instruction, known as Orton-Gillingham, according to a written statement from a district spokesperson. The goal is that one educator from each school building complete the training, with the district allocating about $1.5 million to pay the full cost and provide a stipend. The district concedes that “this is still a goal” but added that most schools have at least identified an educator to complete the process.
The district declined to make officials available for interviews, but provided information in written statements. In a statement, new superintendent Mary Skipper said, “We’re responding to the need of the moment. One thing the pandemic revealed, in particular, is the further disparities in literacy achievement, which requires that we provide much more explicit evidence-based reading support for all students in every school.”
The focus is on shoring up capacity at “high-needs” schools, according to a district spokesperson. “Over the past two years, the district has been executing on a plan to dramatically improve the delivery of literacy instruction with an emphasis on racial equity,” the district said in a statement.
Nationally, there are persistent racial and socioeconomic gaps in reading performance. White eighth graders outperformed Black ones by 24 points and Hispanic eighth graders by 17 points, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, scores released in October. The reasons are multifaceted: Black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend schools with fewer resources and higher teacher turnover. They are more likely to come from low-income homes where getting basic needs met can interfere with school and learning. And they are less likely to have teachers from their racial and ethnic background, which numerous studies have shown depresses academic achievement.
In recent years, a growing number of experts, advocates and parents have argued that educators are often too quick to blame poor reading outcomes on families, particularly low-income ones, overlooking schools’ own complicity in perpetuating unequal access.
In a May report pushing for stronger reading curricula in New York City schools, as well as an amped-up safety net for those who struggle, leaders of Advocates for Children of New York said that for too long it has been left up to families to ensure their children become literate. “Blame for low literacy rates is placed not on the system itself, but on individual students and their families,” the report stated.
Boston’s uneven safety net reflects a pervasive national problem, said Resha Conroy, founder of the New York-based Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children. “We’ve long talked about book deserts — geographic locations where there isn’t a lot of access to books,” she said. “We can apply this to structured literacy desserts — places where if your child needs a reading intervention or support it’s very difficult to find. You have to go outside of your community.” (Structured literacy includes methodical and explicit instruction in how to build words out of letter combinations.)
The Bronx, with a larger share of Black and Latino residents than any other New York City borough, is one example of a structured literacy desert, she said. It’s the lone borough without an entire school focused on children with language-based learning disabilities. Conroy could find only one private tutor in the Bronx advertising expertise in an evidence-based program for helping struggling readers, compared to scores of such tutors in the other four boroughs.
Conroy became involved in racial equity in literacy after witnessing the treatment of her son, a Black male with dyslexia, by the public schools in New York’s Westchester County. “I saw low education expectations for my son, and I heard loaded language suggesting that it was OK for him not to read,” she said during a 2022 conference focused on literacy. “I saw the stage being set to make the failure to teach him to read acceptable.”
“A lot of people have started talking about dyslexia as a social justice issue.”
Nicole Patton-Terry, director, Florida Center for Reading Research
In Boston public schools, several forces contribute to the uneven distribution of reading specialists. Research has shown that white students are more likely than Black students to be classified as dyslexic, even after controlling for literacy skills and socioeconomic status. That diagnosis typically makes it easier to obtain school-based supports. White teachers may be less likely to suspect dyslexia or another reading problem in Black students because, on average, they hold lower expectations of Black students’ academic potential. When assessing the same Black student, white teachers put their odds of graduating from high school as significantly lower than Black teachers do, according to a 2016 study from Johns Hopkins University researchers. (In Boston public schools, about 59 percent of the teachers are white, compared to about 15 percent of students.)
Moreover, schools that enroll predominantly Black and Hispanic students often face multiple, simultaneous challenges that can make it harder to identify the children who need the most specialized reading help, said Tim Odegard, Chair of Excellence in Dyslexic Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. “You don’t have a context to find those kids who would need the most support, because you don’t have a good base system,” he said. In many of these schools, it’s “not exceptional to fail to read and spell, it’s the norm.”
Boston’s special education system is much more effective at assigning and attempting to remediate behavioral and emotional disabilities than reading problems, according to several special education advocates. “I would see everything addressed for some students except for what really needed to be addressed—which is the reading disability,” said Edith Bazile, who worked as a special education teacher and administrator in the district for 32 years. (The district does have a network of separate classrooms or strands, for students with learning disabilities, some of whom have dyslexia; “many teachers” in these classrooms have training in specialized reading approaches, according to the district spokesperson. But unlike many other districts, Boston does not advertise any of these programs as having an explicit focus on language and reading disabilities.)
District officials have vowed to improve reading instruction across the board. The district has been committed to phonics and the science of reading for years, it said in a statement, including investing since 2014 in Fundations, “an explicit and systemic phonics program” for students in kindergarten through third grade.
The district said it has also significantly expanded professional development in the science of reading, including training over 800 educators in LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) which, among other things, shows educators how students learn to “decode” letters on the page and form meaning from words.
Roxann Harvey suspects that multiple factors influenced how long it took her to get reading help for her children. Her daughter’s second-grade teacher finally endorsed time with a reading specialist, and the girl began 45 minutes of small group instruction with the specialist each day. Her son, however, had behavioral challenges in addition to academic ones, and the school focused overwhelmingly on the behavior. Small for his age, with consistently high energy, he would run out of classrooms and hide under tables or inside recycling bins. Nearly every day, school staff called Harvey, asking her to come pick him up early.
In second grade, school officials recommended transferring the boy, who has both autism and dyslexia, to a program exclusively for kids with disabilities — one which Harvey knew would be more focused on behavior than reading because that’s what exists in Boston public schools. (A state audit chastised the system for sending too many boys of color into such programs.) “By second grade, there was a really strong drive to push him out of [regular] school,” Harvey said. They complained that he wasn’t motivated to learn. “They were trying to build a track record of a ‘problem child.’”
She believed her son’s behavior would improve if he got some help with his reading. But the school, she said, refused to give him the same kind of extra help that her daughter now received. One time, Harvey rewrote the plan the school had produced outlining her son’s special needs and services (called an individualized education program), irate over inaccuracies and language that “blamed the child.”
None of her son’s evaluations suggested that he lacked the intellectual capacity to learn to read. The boy, a Pokémon aficionado, has an unusually strong curiosity and memory, reciting at request the backstory and special powers of the show’s creatures and amassing 600 of the show’s cards.
In the middle of that school year, Harvey’s efforts finally paid off. The same reading specialist who worked with her daughter volunteered to work with the boy during her lunch hour. To Harvey, it wasn’t a coincidence that the woman was one of few Black teachers at the school. She saw the child’s potential in a way that other teachers failed to. With the help of the sessions, Harvey’s son began to progress, learning new letters and sounds every week.
In Boston, families of color also have dramatically less access to private schools focused on reading remediation — and not just because they are less likely to be able to afford the tuition. The Carroll School and the Landmark School, the two largest and best known programs for Boston-area children with language disabilities, enroll just a handful of Black students, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Both schools are in predominantly white Boston suburbs, though they enroll children from all over. At Carroll, 3 percent of the school’s 442 students were Black in the 2019-20 school year, and at Landmark, 4 percent of its students were Black that same year. Hispanic students constituted 7 percent and 3 percent of the schools’ populations, respectively. (Landmark said 16 percent of students identified as people of color last school year. Carroll said that in recent years, a quarter of the school’s new families have identified as people of color.)
Many of the students who attend Landmark get public assistance with tuition. They participate in what’s known as private placement: a federal guarantee that school districts must pay costs at a private school if they can’t meet the needs of a child with a disability. Families often have to spend thousands — even tens of thousands — on private evaluations to prove their child has a disability and then lawyers who can help build a case that the school district has failed to meet their needs.
Jonathan Reovan and his husband have spent more than $50,000 over the last 18 months to get their two Black adopted children—a 9-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy who both have dyslexia, among other special needs—access to private placement and stronger reading services in Boston. The money has paid for a lawyer, an advocate who charges $150 per hour, neuropsychologists, and an intensive tutoring program for their daughter. The couple hopes to recoup some of it from the school district. But they’ve felt the financial strain in the meantime, especially since Reovan left his job as a financial analyst at Harvard four years ago in order to advocate full time for the children.
“We’ve drained the retirement funds — there’s practically nothing left,” he said. “It’s a terrible equity issue,” said Reovan. When it comes to private placement, “you have to pay to play.”
Even when a school district agrees to private placement, families often discover that they hardly have their pick of private schools. One Boston mother spent years fighting for private placement for her 11-year-old daughter, who is dyslexic, only to learn that the girl “didn’t fit the profile” at Landmark, according to the mother and McIntyre, who represented the family. School officials told the mother that her daughter had spatial reasoning challenges that they could not address but provided no other details, they added.
The parent eventually found a spot for her daughter last winter at Dearborn Academy, a school in a Boston suburb that serves children with dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and other challenges. It’s been going well. But the mother described the search as a “horror show” — rife with the same inequities that Black families like hers face in the public system.
Josh Clark, Landmark’s head of school, said it’s true that there’s “a specific profile of students that we think we serve well” at his school, and that includes many students with not just a language-based disability but ADHD. Black and Latino students are more likely on average, he added, to get diagnosed with multiple disabilities due to “an inherent bias in the referral and screening process.” And they are less likely on average to have the resources to access private placement. Both of those factors contribute to the racial disparities in enrollment. “I think that Landmark is earnest in its efforts, and we know that we should do more and will do more to address the vast need across the community.” Landmark is working with more than 50 public school districts, he said, to strengthen their language-based programs.
Reovan has experienced consistent challenges in finding language-focused private schools that will accept his kids. He applied last February for his daughter to attend the Carroll School, planning to pay the $59,000 tuition out of pocket initially, and then sue the school district to get reimbursed. But Carroll officials said the girl’s “cognitive profile” did not align with her peers and refused her admission, he said.
“They are very picky,” he said. “If you have anything beyond simple dyslexia, they tend to reject you.”
Carroll’s chief enrollment and financial assistance officer, Stacey Daniels, said student diversity is a top priority, but she added that the school groups students in cohorts with comparable cognitive, academic, and social-emotional backgrounds. For some applicants, they don’t have an appropriate cohort to put them in. “For the last six years, we have been truly, deeply focused on compositionally changing the student body,” she said. That includes allocating $3.6 million this year in financial aid and training the school’s educators on cultural bias in testing
In October, the Reovans made the difficult decision for Jonathan to move with the children to the family’s second home in rural New Hampshire. “We exhausted so many options for (our son) and we were met with such fierce resistance to helping (our daughter) just learn to read in Boston Public Schools,” Reovan wrote in an email. In Boston, both the public and private systems tried to steer the boy toward a school focused on behavior rather than reading, Reovan said. Meanwhile, the school district denied the family’s request for tutoring reimbursement for the girl, and Reovan has appealed to the Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals.
“Reading services are very hard to come by, and I’m not sure why,” he said. “Regardless of intentions, there is a lot of unconscious bias and a tendency to write kids off.”
Both of Harvey’s children made steady progress once they got specialized, small group help. Yet the struggle hardly ended. Harvey, who now serves as chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, has had to push back several times against attempts to curtail her kids’ services. “At points in meetings, I heard, ‘They seem to be doing well. I don’t think we need this anymore.’ And I had to be very clear about the fact that they still weren’t reading on grade level.”
Last school year, Harvey’s daughter passed out of the final level in the Wilson Reading System program, and she’s closing in on grade level reading skills: As a starting ninth grader, she tests at the seventh-grade level. And she loves it: Harvey said she sometimes reminds her daughter not to read while she walks, so she doesn’t trip.
Although she never had the money to pay for private tutoring for her children, Harvey considers herself lucky. She came into her battle with the city’s education bureaucracy with assets that not every Boston public school parent possesses: an extensive education herself, and the flexibility to advocate several hours a day when she needed to. And although, at 12, her son prefers the Dog Man books, he could read a newspaper if he wanted to.
Carr reported this story, part of ongoing coverage on equity in access to reading supports, as an O’Brien Fellow in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University in 2021-22.
This story about dyslexia was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.