cathygregoryWhat is your background as an educator?

I began teaching second grade in Richmond, Virginia, in 1977, after graduating from the College of William and Mary with a B.A. in elementary education. During my first year, a teacher next door kept bringing a little boy to my room to stand in my room for punishment. She was angry at him for not being able to read. I asked if I could have him in my class. That was the first I’d heard about dyslexia, so I enrolled that year at Virginia Commonwealth University to begin the journey to obtain a Master’s degree in Learning Disabilities. I just had to find out more about this student who couldn’t read. I began teaching special education in 1982 in Tappahannock, Virginia, after getting married and finishing the special education degree. From that point on, I taught special education in elementary, middle, and high school in Essex and Hanover County until I became an administrator in special education in 2001 until I retired in 2015 from public schools. I ended my career as a special education director, and have moved into the independent private school system. Even during the years that I worked to serve children with all 14 disabilities, my passion and heart remained with those students struggling to read.

Describe your last job before retiring and your current job.

As a special education director of a public school system, I was responsible for the curriculum and instruction for all of the students in the schools with identified disabilities, as well as compliance and adherence to current state and national legislative guidelines for students with disabilities. The department included teachers, administrators, instructional assistants, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, diagnosticians, speech and language therapists, physical therapists, other related services, and office staff. Students were provided services beginning at the age of 2 until 22 in all locations, including the preschools, daycares, private educational schools, homebound locations, hospitals, and the jail. Much of my job included managing federal and state funding, as well as professional development in all areas of instruction, specifically reading, writing, and mathematics.

I just had to find out more about this student who couldn’t read.

My current job is as a learning specialist in a private academic school which supports students in a K-grade 4 setting. Many students have identified learning differences including ADHD and dyslexia, which require specific instruction and/or accommodations in the classroom setting. Parents may provide private test results which guide the student’s educational plan.

In your role as president of the Virginia IDA branch, what are your main areas of focus? 

IDAMy branch’s goal is to improve the lives of individuals with dyslexia through education, legislation, and services. My personal goal is to help teachers who struggle to help their students. Honestly, a teacher has so much on his/her plate. It is difficult to keep up with the differentiated needs of learners, and teachers do not always receive the training and resources needed for working with dyslexic students. They may not have even heard of dyslexia since it was a “hush hush” word for many years, much less have received any training at all in how to teach students with dyslexia. The teacher may have students with varying disabilities and needs in one room, even varying levels of reading with no books or materials. Parents are so frustrated and don’t know where to turn or get help, either. Tutors who are trained are few and often expensive and unavailable to many families. Over the last 40 years, I have seen dyslexic students punished, encouraged to drop out, incarcerated, homebound, and labeled incorrectly due to lack of education. It is heartbreaking to see and experience. While much has improved, the horror stories still exist on a daily basis for students struggling to read. Teacher retention is a significant issue for all school systems, as well.

Another area of focus is helping our families. Getting help for frustrated parents, linking them to parent organizations such as DDVA—Decoding Dyslexia Virginia—and working with DDVA to support their dynamic efforts, as well as getting the word out to the public about dyslexia is another area of focus. We have terrific programs for students being implemented; however, it is slow and not fast enough for some of students who need help now. Early identification and intervention is an area of focus, as well, as we learn what screening tools are the best to use on our little students.

I have been honored to meet professionals and parents across the nation who strive to make the world a better place by helping everyone to read. By accepting this role, it has truly been an honor to learn what I have learned. I would love to be able to continue to support all areas of knowledge about dyslexia in any possible way. It is the challenge of a lifetime and a blessing to be a part of this.

In general, how well do Virginia schools perform in identifying and offering interventions for students with dyslexia? 

Over the last few years, the Virginia Department of Education has made significant strides to impact and improve education for students with disabilities, specifically dyslexia. Comprehensive training in Orton-Gillingham is being offered to teachers across the commonwealth and to parents, as well. The department has written a new dyslexia guidebook and FAQ sheets about dyslexia. With the help of the Virginia Teacher Training and Assistance Teams, online modules about dyslexia have been authored and put into place for teacher training. In response to the law passed last year in the General Assembly, all educators must participate in training about dyslexia in order to gain recertification/certification beginning in 2017. In January, 2017, the Virginia General Assembly passed new legislation requiring localities to have a trained dyslexia specialist in their school systems, beginning in 2018. The Virginia Governor also declared October as Dyslexia Awareness month.

It is my personal belief that school superintendents and school administrators should be more aware of dyslexia and the impact in the schools. In Virginia, SOL’s—Standards of Learning—are given utmost priority; therefore, much of the money allocated goes to SOL instruction and remediation. The programs and training for dyslexia instruction are often ignored or not funded due to a lack of understanding about what dyslexia is. However, the money spent on the correct multi-sensory instruction will no doubt lead to students being able to read and pass the tests, and raise the scores for the whole division. Much too often, funding goes to quick fix programs with the hopes of raising scores instantly.

My personal goal is to help teachers who struggle to help their students. Honestly, a teacher has so much on his/her plate. It is difficult to keep up with the differentiated needs of learners, and teachers do not always receive the training and resources needed for working with dyslexic students.

What are the goals of the Virginia IDA in looking ahead?

After July, a new president will take my place. I do not wish to project what the new president’s goals may be along with the new board in going forward; however, I know that as a board, we need to strategically plan how to help our students more. We have some scholarships in place; however, we would like to plan ways to reach more students statewide who may need financial help with tutoring, schooling, and/or assistive technology. With that may come a need for a funding campaign to help with these goals. We have successfully initiated state conferences that appeal to teachers, parents, and administrators. This needs to be a continued focus, as well as reaching out to educate the general public. In Virginia, we are lucky to have a wonderful working relationship with Decoding Dyslexia of Virginia. They need to be credited completely for getting the recent legislation passed in Virginia.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the Virginia schools with the transition from NCLB to ESSA?

The impact of ESSA is yet to be seen. NCLB certainly had its challenges—causing schools to focus solely on the test scores, due to the consequences built into the law. Best practices and research-based teaching is certainly an excellent result of professional development; however, there were effects on children that I personally found to be negative. ESSA promises to be an improvement on NCLB, however, the true test will be in the implementation. The biggest challenge, in my opinion, will be to how provide the funding to ensure that the high academic standards are taught, how/who will provide the training and how to effect the change in our lowest performing schools. Keeping our great teachers and attracting the young, bright education graduates will be a significant challenge, as well.

For students with dyslexia, research has proven that multi-sensory, explicit, consistent instruction works. I find that with IMSE, a teacher gets training, support, and creative ways to teach without having to buy huge kits and materials. You get what you need and it works.

When did you first learn about IMSE?

Surprisingly, I first learned about IMSE when I was hired last year in the private school setting.

The school had trained most of their teachers in IMSE and I was invited to attend the overview training upon being hired. I was surprised that I had not heard much about it prior to my new job assignment.

Were you familiar with the Orton Gillingham methodologies prior to IMSE?

I was indeed very familiar with the Orton-Gillingham methodologies prior to IMSE. It was a vital part of my coursework in gaining my Master’s Degree. I have not been trained formally or certified in O.G. I value the Orton-Gillingham approach as the best and only way to teach students with dyslexia.

What were your impressions of IMSE’s training?

I was fortunate to be able to take the three day introductory course for IMSE this past year. I was amazed at how “user-friendly” and comprehensive the course was. I was miffed that I had not had it before in my public school experience or heard about it in my own professional development in the county school systems. It would have been a wonderful curriculum for the special education teachers to use when the expensive, lengthy trainings were not practical or affordable. I work with many colleagues presently who are trained and love the curriculum. Several have taken the more intensive trainings and think that they provide so much more practice and knowledge for the teacher. I love that our whole school is using it for all students; however, it is also used as an intervention for our students who need more than the core instruction.

What can you tell other educators about IMSE’s Orton-Gillingham program?

I am still a huge proponent of the Response to Intervention model that I was lucky enough to be involved in during the years from 2007-2013 for our school system of 25 schools. We saw huge gains in some of our schools using the tiered intervention support system. In my opinion, IMSE provides ways to provide Core, Strategic and Intensive interventions for all of our students. As I mentioned previously, I have taught for 40+ years. When my schools or I used a phonetic approach to teaching reading, the students all did significantly better. I am not a reading specialist; however, I have seen students made tremendous leaps and progress when using a phonics approach. Some older students went from being non-readers to being able to decode multi-syllabic words within a year. For students with dyslexia, research has proven that multi-sensory, explicit, consistent instruction works. I find that with IMSE, a teacher gets training, support, and creative ways to teach without having to buy huge kits and materials. You get what you need and it works. Again, some of the boxed kits that I have bought from other companies sit on the shelf and collect dust far too often. I am excited to see the results of this method when I see kindergarten students who now have the light bulb blazing. There is nothing better than to see a struggling reader sound out his first words and his eyes and face light up with the smile of success.