Hailey Sinclair was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was 8. She was illiterate.
She kept passing her classes, but she said her inability to read went largely unnoticed because she never really caused a fuss. Teachers let her move on to the next grade. One day Sinclair’s sister noticed she couldn’t read and told their mother.
Sinclair’s mother pulled her from school and got her a tutor. By the time she turned 9, Sinclair was reading.
Sinclair is now a mother and knows all the signs of dyslexia. When her son started kindergarten at Alice Carlson Applied Learning Academy in Fort Worth ISD, Sinclair already was seeing the signs of a similar diagnosis for him.
State protocol calls for a student to get tested by the school district diagnostician. District’s do not have to accept an outside diagnosis and testing with the school is free compared with the thousands of dollars a private provider might charge.
It took the school district three years to take Sinclair’s concerns seriously, she said. When a teacher finally intervened, 13 more months passed before her son received a diagnosis to get the services he needed. Sinclair filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency, which found the district does not always ensure evaluation personnel are properly trained.
In the 2022-23 school year, 11% of Fort Worth ISD students were in the special education program, lower than the state’s 12.7%, the district’s executive director of specialized learning, Audrey Thomas said. The percentage of students in special education is increasing, she said.
For students diagnosed with dyslexia in the district in 2022-23, Fort Worth ISD was just under the state’s 5.5% with 5.3% students diagnosed.
In conversations with other parents in the district, Sinclair said, she knows she is not the only parent who’s experienced issues with getting a diagnosis and services.
“I’m just the one parent who pushed it enough for them to correct their mess,” she said. “I am not an early childhood education person. I do not have an advanced degree in education. The burden has just, it has taken away from my studies, it has taken away from my career. All I’m asking of them is just doing what the TEA says to do.”
Sinclair’s son started kindergarten in 2019. At that point, he couldn’t pronounce words correctly and his mother said his handwriting was incomprehensible.
His kindergarten teacher told her she wasn’t worried about it – everyone develops differently. Sinclair wasn’t convinced. She’d started asking the pediatrician about dyslexia from the time he was 1, but doctors always told her it was too soon to be sure.
COVID-19 happened in 2020, and classes were shut down. Sinclair was seeing even more of her son at home, and her concerns persisted. As did his kindergarten teacher, his first-grade teacher said she wasn’t worried about him.
When he returned to the classroom, Sinclair said, he would get pulled into small reading groups to help. Finally, in second grade, a teacher took her complaints seriously.
It wasn’t until fall 2022 — a full school year later — that Sinclair’s son got a diagnosis.
For Sinclair, it felt as if the district cared more about defending itself than pursuing the best interest of the child.
“An entire year-plus it was delayed, which just breaks my heart,” she said.
A flawed test
When Sinclair saw her son’s test results provided by the district in 2022, she knew something was wrong. District diagnosticians kept saying he didn’t have dyslexia or dysgraphia.
What are dyslexia and dysgraphia?
Dyslexia: “A learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding). Also called a reading disability, dyslexia is a result of individual differences in areas of the brain that process language,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Dysgraphia: “A neurological disorder characterized by writing disabilities. Specifically, the disorder causes a person’s writing to be distorted or incorrect. In children, the disorder generally emerges when they are first introduced to writing,” according to the National Institute of Health.
Finally, Sinclair asked to see the test and how it was scored.
The directions for one part of the test were simple: Write the alphabet in uppercase and lowercase letters.
“The letters were almost all wrong,” Sinclair said, but her son scored a 24 out of 26.
She confronted the tester and asked for a testing manual to see how the evaluation should have been scored.
“She said she scored it that way because she knew what he meant,” Sinclair said on her meeting with the tester. “That’s when I said this meeting is over, because this is a standardized test. And you can’t score it based on what he meant. That’s the whole issue. He has all the knowledge and his brain. He can’t get it out on paper. So you scoring by what he meant is just not a true test.”
Between second and third grade, Sinclair met with Fort Worth ISD and showed them the testing. The district agreed to have someone else test her son, who found he was definitely dyslexic and dysgraphic.
In March 2023, Sinclair filed a report with the Texas Education Agency against the district with three allegations the state investigated:
- Did Fort Worth ISD ensure the student’s Individualized Education Plan was implemented regarding his dyslexia ?
- Did Fort Worth ISD evaluate the student in all areas of suspected disability, specifically dyslexia and dysgraphia, and did the district ensure that the assessment and other evaluation materials used to assess the student were administered by trained and knowledgeable personnel?
- Did Fort Worth ISD ensure the student’s Individualized Education Plan team made the student’s eligibility determination regarding a specific learning disability in accordance with the law?
The district waited too long to test her son, Sinclair said, and did not have a learning plan in place to address his dysgraphia.
Once the complaint was filed, Fort Worth ISD submitted about 2,200 pages of documents, including all emails with her — such as communication about Parent Teacher Association functions.
In those documents, the district submitted a form that said it completed an independent evaluation on March 4, so the state threw out Sinclair’s complaint because it was outside of its one-year timeline to investigate complaints.
However, Sinclair had a copy of the same document, which was dated May 7, within the timeline for TEA to investigate.
“This is absurd,” Sinclair said she remembered thinking. “If you have an entire investigation hinging on one document and you have both parties turning in that same document with different days — you don’t just go with the one that one party gives you and then close it. If anything, that should have spurred you to do more of an investigation.”
The case reopened. The state found the district “does not always ensure that evaluation personnel are trained and knowledgeable regarding students’ evaluations” in accordance with the law.
Thomas, the new district’s new director of specialized learning, started her position in June. Although she was not working for the district at the time of Sinclair’s complaint, she is working on the district’s corrective action plan for the problem.
Thomas has a background in working as a diagnostician, so she knows how to address TEA’s needs. Anyone who wants to work as a diagnostician in the district will need the proper credentials, which include a master’s degree and a certification, Thomas said.
Additionally, with the district’s new organizational structure, evaluation personnel will be more evenly spread across directors and coordinators.
“That laser focus on ensuring that all staff not only come in with the right credentials, but they’re trained, and they’ve got the support that they need in the training. They need to make sure that they are doing quality work,” Thomas said.
‘You have to care’
“The hardest part for me is feeling like nobody cares,” Sinclair said. “They screwed over the testing and delayed diagnosis by years. You have to care. This is your job.”
In August, Sinclair will meet with the district and a facilitator from the state to discuss her son’s services for the upcoming school year. She’s not sure what will happen next.
“One of my biggest regrets in life is ever trusting my children with Fort Worth ISD,” she said. “And that’s heartbreaking because I’ve been such a public school advocate forever.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com.
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