An advocate for dyslexics

Penny Shepherd-Hill says low literacy is linked to broken lives

One hundred per cent of the kids who attend educator Penny Shepherd-Hill’s school have a learning disorder.

Best known in her hometown Maple Ridge for her work with children with dyslexia, Shepherd-Hill is beginning her second school year as the principal of James Cameron School. She brings to the job a wealth of expertise and a big heart for kids.

Shepherd-Hill knows that one in five kids in every classroom has some range of dyslexia, from mild to profound.

She has focused on helping those kids for about 11 years.

According to her ratio, every typical school classroom will have four or five children on that spectrum. They are often the kids who are disruptive or get various special needs labels.

“You’re going to be the class clown, or you’re going to be the class bully, but all behaviours serve a purpose.”

That purpose, she explained, is to hide the fact that they can’t read or write at the same level as their peers.

The impact on their self esteem can be devastating.

“Just imagine you’re sitting in a classroom, and everyone else around you can read and write and do the math, and you can’t. You think you’re stupid,” she said. “Wouldn’t you rather be the badass kid than the stupid kid?”

Shepherd-Hill takes up the cry of educators like Dr. Linda Siegel of UBC, who link unidentified learning disabilities with drug use, homelessness and even suicide.

Shepherd-Hill graduated from SFU in 2001, when she was then a single mother with four children. She continued to get a bachelor of arts in leadership at Trinity Western University, while also teaching at Maple Ridge Christian for 15 years. Now she is completing her Masters in Special Education at UBC, and her thesis is assessing teachers’ knowledge and confidence in spelling instruction.

She believes specific, phonetic spelling instruction is the key to helping dyslexic kids, and that teachers need to be taught these methods.

In her first class as a teacher, there was a child who couldn’t seem to read like the rest of his peers.

“I had this little guy, and I couldn’t reach him. I couldn’t help him crack the code.”

It bothered her.

On the advice of a colleague, and out of her own pocket, Shepherd-Hill attended a Susan Barton course on dyslexia in the U.S. It’s a one-week course, teaching methods that take years to master.

Afterward, she designed a new spelling program for her Grade 2 class.

“I taught all of my kids as if they have dyslexia,” she said.

There is a myth that people with dyslexia see letters out of order. Rather it is an auditory processing disorder, she said.

“They see the letters just like you and I, but they get mixed up in the processing.”

There are signs for parents to watch for. Dyslexics have problems retrieving words from memory, they have problems making rhymes, and are often “not able to map letters to sounds.”

“It’s a glitch in their wiring, and they need help. But they can learn.”

These students need to be taught strategies to help them read, but Shepherd-Hill said once they learn the rules, the success rate in overcoming their challenges is virtually 100 per cent.

Reading is decoding language. Spelling is encoding language – which is why she says well-taught spelling is the key for dyslexics.

Shepherd Hill has developed spelling programs for older grade levels, and she asserts all kids should be taught to spell as if they have dyslexia.

“It’s harmful for none, helpful for all, and critical for some.”

Some of the students from James Cameron have incredible stories, like the boy who arrived illiterate in Grade 5, who graduated at the top of his high school class.

Shepherd-Hill has presented to the Teachers Regulation Branch in B.C., asking for changes in training programs, to help them recognize and ameliorate dyslexia.

“If we could teach the teachers, in their training, how many kids could we effect?”

Unfortunately, current philosophies about education are firmly entrenched, she said.

She has also written to Stephen Harper when he was in office, and plans to again propose a national strategy on dyslexia to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

It could be life changing for these kids, she said, noting 85 per cent of the prison population reads at below a Grade 6 level.

Attending James Cameron is cost prohibitive for some.

The school costs $1,600 per month, and there are heart wrenching stories like the mother who sold her house to get her daughter the schooling she needed. And there were parents who were forced to decide which one of their two dyslexic children to send.

“This is the thing that keeps me awake at night,” she said. “Nothing prepared me for the pain of parents who want to come here, but can’t afford it.”

Shepherd-Hill believes this level of education should be paid for, or at least heavily subsidized, but the public school system.

“Why not a dyslexic academy?” she asks.

“Somebody has to fight for these kids.”