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Preparing Students for Success

August 3, 2018
Think for a second of all the things you’ve learned through reading. 
Scientific principles. American history. How to operate a new technology purchase. 
Now imagine you never learned to read properly, and consider how differently your life would be today.  
This month, an Upstate charter school will open its doors to offer students with dyslexia better tools for overcoming literacy challenges.
Officials anticipate that Lakes and Bridges Charter School will improve educational outcomes for students while addressing long-term workforce development needs, and they ultimately hope it will springboard into a new educational model. 
Lakes and Bridges Charter School Charter Committee Member Adam Artigliere, also special counsel with McNair Law Firm, spoke with Upstate SC Alliance investors about the groundbreaking school during the July Coffee & Conversation.
Adam Artigiliere at Upstate Sc Alliance
Starting at the Foundation
South Carolina’s Department of Education reported last year that two-thirds of the state’s fourth graders are unable to read at their grade level. While this is particularly troubling for our schools, if left unresolved, it is deeply problematic for Upstate employers as well.
“If we continue to grow the way we want to,” says McNair Law Firm special counsel Adam Artigliere, “we’ll run out of qualified candidates to fill jobs.” Workforce is a preeminent concern for businesses looking to expand in our region, and preparing the next generation of workers is vital. In less than 10 years, Artigliere notes, these same fourth graders will enter the workforce, leaving South Carolina’s public schools just a decade to turn the tide. 
Workforce development, says Artigliere, starts at the foundation. “By third grade, students are reading to learn rather than simply learning to read.” Classroom hours are no longer focused on literacy instruction, and students are expected to read, comprehend, and retain material presented to them. This shift widens the gap between students who have mastered reading and those with literacy deficiencies like dyslexia. The consequences of this gap are lifelong.
“Literacy affects everything. Students who don’t meet the state’s reading standards are four- to six-times more likely to drop out of high school. Two-thirds of them will end up in jail or on public assistance, and three-quarters will remain poor readers throughout their adulthood,” Artigliere says. Improving our students’ literacy rates prepares them to be gainfully employed citizens who contribute to our state’s economy, rather than the opposite. “We can either invest now or pay a far steeper price in the future.” 
Dyslexia: Hidden in Plain Sight
A common cause for literacy difficulties in elementary school students is dyslexia, defined by Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity professor Sally Shaywitz, as an unexpected difficulty in reading in someone with the intelligence to be a much better reader. The learning disorder can vary in scope and degree from person to person, but it is far from rare; Shaywitz estimates that one in five Americans is dyslexic. 
In early elementary years, dyslexia symptoms may include struggling to match letters on a page with the sounds they make or failing to recognize letters consistently. From there, says Artigliere, reading homework becomes an insurmountable task and learning issues only escalate.
“Dyslexic students learn differently. It’s not that they’re unmotivated or lazy; they’re often smarter than their peers,” he explains. “The issue is that typical instruction does not meet their needs. It is not a lack of effort or intelligence that causes them to fall behind. The burden is really on us.” 

That burden, simply put, is determining teaching methods to close the academic gap between dyslexic students and their peers. Effective instruction targeted at students with dyslexia and other reading issues can benefit struggling students long after they graduate.
South Carolina is understandably proud of our “strong technical college system,” says Artigliere. “But if we don’t catch students with learning disorders before they get to that point, we are leaving them behind. They can only make it that far if we equip them.” With the proper preparation and support, students with dyslexia can become confident, successful adults who will add as much to South Carolina’s workforce as their peers. 
A Challenge and a Champion 
When Artigliere learned his son had dyslexia seven years ago, he was determined not to view the disorder as a disability. “We simply told our son that we’d been teaching him incorrectly, and we were going to change that.”
After years of academic struggles, thousands of dollars of testing and an official diagnosis, the Artigliere family found few resources for dyslexic students. Private schools focused on literacy are cost-prohibitive for most South Carolinians, and the public school system “cannot provide intensive training to every teacher who will encounter a dyslexic student,” says Artigliere 
Undaunted by this challenge, he and a group of like-minded Upstate parents and education advocates banded together to create a solution. The group’s vision was clear: to develop a public, tuition-free charter school for students left behind by typical reading instruction. 
The first step was designing an evidence-based, specialized curriculum for students with dyslexia and other literacy issues. Next came the task of bringing this vision to fruition via legislative funding and approval. “Pickens County Representative Gary Clary became our champion,” says Artigliere. 
Clary, who has two grandsons with dyslexia, previously helped implement mandatory learning disorder screenings in South Carolina elementary schools. “Teachers will screen kindergarteners through second graders four times a year for dyslexia,” Clary explains. Already an advocate, Clary quickly saw the value of a school for students with literacy challenges. 
“We had to change state laws to allow a public school to be disorder-specific,” Clary says, “It was a process, but it was worth it to address what is a substantial need in our state.” After months of planning, paperwork and legislative sessions, Pickens County’s Lakes and Bridges Charter School became a reality.
A Selling Point for South Carolina
“At Lakes and Bridges (LABS), our mission is to teach all students to read,” Artigliere says. The school aims to accomplish this with a multi-sensory, student-paced style, drawing from the esteemed Orton-Gillingham approach to literacy instruction. Its goals are ambitious: to increase literacy by a grade level in a student’s first year, and to have them reading at grade level within three years of enrolling. 
Artigliere says 110 students have enrolled already and several families will be commuting an hour or more to attend LABS’ Pickens campus. The school will begin as a K-5 program for the 2018-2019 school year and plans to add one additional grade annually. “Private schools are no longer the only solution for dyslexic students,” he explains. “This is transformative for these children, their families, and our state. It’s a real selling point.”  
Clary and Artigliere envision similar programs popping up in the future, noting that dyslexia-specific public schools are rare outside of major metropolitan areas. “Our numbers don’t tell the full story of the breadth of South Carolina’s educational offerings,” says Artigliere, “People are trying to keep up with us on a number of fronts, and I believe they’ll be replicating this concept, following our lead this way, too.” 
Rep. Clary looks forward to seeing the fruit of the LABS team’s vision and hard work. “Our economy is growing. We have jobs we can’t fill, and we have very capable people who would be strong candidates one day – if we can meet their needs now.”
TOPICS: Education, Workforce Development