Dyslexic Girls See The Light

By Miriam Colton

Published August 13, 2004, issue of August 13, 2004.
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When Leah David couldn’t find the proper school for her daughter, she started her own.

“My daughter wasn’t getting it,” David said. A stay-at-home mother to Gittel Bracha, her only child, David had been meeting with teachers and principals in her daughter’s Orthodox school for two years to discuss the young girl’s difficulties learning to read.

The school placed Gittel Bracha in a remedial classroom, where she got by with memorization. During the summer, David hired a private tutor and practiced reading with her daughter at night — all to no avail. Gittel Bracha was in second grade, and she still couldn’t read.

“She resented me and got upset because she realized she wasn’t getting it, and it was very frustrating for her,” said David, 52. “She was in a traditional, good school but wasn’t picking up on sounds and letters and words.”

Eventually a private evaluator determined that Gittel Bracha had dyslexia, a neurological language-processing disorder that typically causes one to mix up the order of letters and words. There was one Orthodox school for students with dyslexia located near her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., but it was for boys only.

So David took matters into her own hands and founded Ohr Halimud (“light of learning”), the only Orthodox school in the United States for dyslexic girls. Gittel Bracha, 9, is now happily ensconced in the school her mother founded. And finally, she gets it.

David’s school, which will complete its first year of operation this summer, incorporates a teaching method called Orton-Gillingham, a multi-sensory approach to teaching children with dyslexia. Faculty at the school are trained in the method; for instance, a teacher might have a student simultaneously see the letter “G,” feel a wooden block in its shape, and recite its name and sound aloud.

Ohr Halimud takes to heart the dictum in the biblical Book of Proverbs that each child should be educated according to his way — or, in this case, her way. Like other Orthodox schools, Ohr Halimud crams each day chockfull of general and Judaic studies. But there the similarities end. Ohr Halimud, which rents space from a Bais Yaakov high school in Boro Park, is more like a one-room schoolhouse. Every student has at least one hour a day of private Orton-Gillingham instruction in reading and language arts. Also incorporated into the schedule are extracurricular activities such as photography, yoga, cooking and drama.

The school had three students this year, ages 8 through 12, and will double to at least six in September. David attributes low enrollment to the high tuition, which is $20,000 per year. She says she has received inquiries from about 35 families, but that affordability was a big concern. “It’s very expensive, but I can’t help that,” she said. David already has secured some educational grants and raised more than $10,000 at an auction in June; she is still looking for larger gifts or a donor to endow the school.

In the meantime, David continues to run the school almost single-handedly. “I wear every hat you can think of: fund raiser, advertiser, principal, maintenance, administrator,” David said. Currently she doesn’t take a salary. “I work very hard, and I get a cell phone,” she joked.

In the long run, David hopes to see the school become an acceptable alternative for students with dyslexia, which is said to affect about 10% of the population. While she is prepared to extend Ohr Halimud through high school if necessary, its goal is to mainstream the students eventually. “The child gets a solid foundation and the tools necessary to be able to function,” she said.

Martin Schloss, vice president of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, stressed the value of a school like Ohr Halimud. “If you do a good enough job and three of those six students go back to regular school, think about what savings you have made to the Jewish community,” he said. Schloss added that while some Jewish schools offer limited services for special education, the field is still underdeveloped. “There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said.

This summer, Ohr Halimud launched its Reading and Language Tutoring Center, offering after-school and summer tutoring for students. In October, it will start offering teachers an 18-month course in the Orton-Gillingham method.

David hopes to return her daughter to a traditional environment in a year. “She’ll have dips, but it won’t be a self-esteem issue… and she’ll have the rules intact,” she said, adding that her daughter now loves to read.

Beyond teaching her to read, Ohr Halimud has left a deep imprint on Gittel Bracha, who recently wrote an essay on her desire to be an Orton-Gillingham teacher when she grows up. “Sometimes in school, kids get smashed like a fly because they don’t understand how to read,” she wrote. “I am going to teach them the right way to learn how to read…. They are going to feel good.”

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