Belgrade schools are gearing up to roll out an enhanced process to identify students with dyslexia and follow up with appropriate interventions.

The action comes in response to a new law passed by the Montana Legislature last year requiring current and new students in public schools to be screened for dyslexia by trained evaluators.

 Curriculum Director Mark Halgren said the district has been conducting dyslexia screenings for 12 years, but the new program – scheduled to be implemented next year – will “tighten up the process for identification and intervention.

“Our general screening won’t change that much – the change will be taking a closer look at the data from the screenings,” he said.

Dyslexia, as defined in the language of the new law, is a specific learning disability characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Students with dyslexia also may have problems with reading comprehension and they may read less than their peers, thus impeding the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

The law requires school districts to screen new students up to grade 2, as well as children in any grade who have not been screened previously and who fail to meet grade-level reading benchmarks. The law further mandates that screenings be administered by individuals who have been trained to identify signs of dyslexia.

The state is providing no additional funding for the programs to school districts. While Halgren said that is “unfortunate,” he does not dispute the program’s value.

“The payoff is going to be our students’ increase in achievement,” he said. “That’s what we’re all about – it’s not an onerous requirement.”

Halgren added the district doesn’t “have a good take” on exactly what the changes will cost.

“We’ll know more once we finish the exact process for screening and who is going to review the data,” he said.

In preparation for the new program, 20 Belgrade teachers have volunteered to serve on one of three task forces, each focusing on a specific component. One will concentrate on screening, another will focus on intervention for students in kindergarten through grade 4, and the third will look at intervention for fifth- through 12th-graders.

In addition to meeting with their individual task force groups, all the teachers completed a half-day training and they have met as a large group to discuss the screening process, which Halgren says will be essential to assessing the specific needs of each student.

“The estimates are that there could be as many as one in five students somewhere on the dyslexia continuum, and their varying degrees of dysfunction make it really challenging,” he said. “We will be able to assess their specific needs, and the techniques teachers use will be customized accordingly.”

Early identification and intervention is crucial, he added, because “when you’re experiencing trouble reading, that’s key – there is a tendency to shut down, withdraw and act out.”

He said he was a little surprised at the broad cross-section of teachers – elementary, middle school, special ed, music, speech, and math – who volunteered to help with the effort, but he said they understand how vital it is to provide proper support for the visual processing disorder that has absolutely no reflection on an individual’s ability or intelligence.

“A lot of those have been either personally impacted by dyslexia or have a family member who has been,” he said.

Students identified through the screenings for intervention will be eligible for remedial services.

Of the new program, he said, “It’s the right thing to do. We’re looking at it as an opportunity.”