Apodaca: Prentice has handle on learning disorders

Testing season is upon us as the school year draws to a close and local students engage in the annual rituals of standardized assessments and final exams.

Most kids find these tests a bit stressful. But for those with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, they can be agony.

It's a testament to how far we've come that dyslexia today is a well-known condition that carries far less stigma than in the past. Estimates vary, but it's believed that somewhere between 10% and 20% of the population in the United States has the disorder.

Research has shown that dyslexia is a genetic trait that causes weakness in the part of the brain that decodes the sounds of written language. Kids are born with it, and there is no cure. Though they might be highly intelligent, dyslexic people will always struggle with reading, every word posing a difficult puzzle to solve.

But encouraging progress in treating dyslexia has given hope to those with the condition that with the right kind of teaching techniques and support system, great progress can be made toward overcoming reading deficits.

The challenge is getting kids the help they need, and the younger the better.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the private Prentice School in Santa Ana, which for 27 years has offered specialized instruction for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

The work is a labor of love for Karen Lerner, junior high and high school principal at the school, which encompasses pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

Although dyslexia and other learning disabilities are better understood and acknowledged throughout academia today, many parents bring their children to Prentice after growing frustrated with mainstream education. Public schools typically address learning issues with individualized education programs, or IEPs, which can have limited success because students still have to navigate through the structure of a traditional classroom.

Too often these kids are still faced with perceptions that they aren't trying hard enough, or that they only need a little extra time to complete tests and assignments. The underlying issues remain largely unaddressed.

"I'm not impugning public schools, but we're dyslexic all day long," she said. "Kids come here when other schools aren't working for them."

Lerner, a former dancer who taught at UC Irvine and Chapman University, first discovered Prentice as a parent seeking specialized instruction for her daughter, who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. (Although dyslexia is the school's main focus, Prentice deals with other learning disabilities, which sometimes manifest in "a ball of issues" that must be treated on an individualized basis, Lerner explained.)

Twenty years later, Lerner is now schooled in methods advocated by the Slingerlind Institute for Literacy, a Bellevue, Wash., nonprofit organization that trains teachers in its "multi-sensory" approach to dyslexia.

"Anybody can stand in front of a class and start yakking," Lerner said. "That's not the way we teach."

With a student body that generally numbers between 200 and 250, and specially trained teachers and support staff, Prentice attempts to address each child individually. "Different kids need different things," Lerner said. "You've got to take a look at what you've got."

Throughout the school, specific methods and strategies are woven into every lesson. In English classes, students are taught ways to recognize groups of letters that represent certain sounds, helping them find ways to decode written words. Test-taking might include both visual and auditory components.

Elementary science classes don't rely heavily on books or papers. The instruction is instead more "experience-oriented," with kids working on experiments and hands-on projects. Other work that employs manual components, as well as auditory and visual — from art classes to maintaining the school's greenhouse — are emphasized. Classes are small, and all teachers have assistants.

Homework is not generally given, but students often stay an extra hour after school to continue their studies. In one high school classroom, a student told me that she'd been "more successful here that anywhere else. I got a solid B in math."

At the high school level, Prentice also tries to guide students toward goals that will mesh well with their interests and abilities, whether that includes college or technical and vocational training. The school offers such specialized instruction as medical assistant training and web designing.

All this doesn't come cheap. The school's annual tuition can run anywhere from a few thousand dollars for part-time pre-kindergarten to $20,000 for middle school. "You have more options when you have money," Lerner acknowledged, although she noted that the school does offer tuition assistance for those in need.

In a perfect world, such carefully researched, in-depth, individualized programs would be available to all students with learning challenges. Alas, with public schools struggling to stay solvent after years of financial decline, programs befitting students with special needs haven't been spared from cost-cutting measures.

That's not to say there isn't hope. As dyslexia and other learning disabilities are better understood and teaching methods refined, recognition is growing that kids who struggle to read can be successful given the right tools.

Take Lerner's daughter, the former Prentice student. Last Sunday she graduated from Rutgers University with a master's degree in library science. It didn't take a miracle, just hard work, dedication and a support system that spoke to her needs.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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