A Lesson For Georgia? A Look At A Public School Just For Kids With Dyslexia

Lakes and Bridges is a public charter school in Easley, South Carolina that specializes in students with dyslexia.
Lakes and Bridges is a public charter school in Easley, South Carolina, that specializes in educating students with dyslexia.
Credit Ben Ivins / For WABE

Experts say about 1 in 5 people have dyslexia, a learning disability that often affects reading. Georgia recently passed legislation to provide more support for dyslexic students in public schools.

Some states are a little further along. For example, states like South Carolina and Louisiana have opened public charter schools that only serve students with dyslexia.

Building ‘Bridges’

Lakes and Bridges is one such school. It’s located in Easley, South Carolina, about 140 miles from Atlanta.

If you passed by the green metal building near U.S. Highway 123, you might not know it’s a school. The building used to be a General Motors dealership. Then it was a church.

Lakes and Bridges student
Lakes and Bridges has a 10:1 student/teacher ratio, so students get plenty of individual instruction. (Ben Ivins/For WABE)

Now it’s South Carolina’s first state charter school for dyslexic students. This is the second year the school has been open.

Because Lakes and Bridges is a state charter school, kids from anywhere in South Carolina can attend.

Although some students live nearby, others travel up to 45 minutes to get to school each day, says school principal Heidi Bishop.

Bishop also says families have relocated from other states so their kids can attend.

“We had two families from Florida, a family from Georgia, New York and Indiana relocate to attend the school,” Bishop said. “Last year, we had applications from Arizona, Colorado, North Dakota, two families in Ohio, North Carolina, Massachusetts, who all applied.”

Lakes and Bridges principal Heidi Bishop, right, has worked with dyslexic students for decades and is the school's first principal. (Ben Ivins/For WABE)
Lakes and Bridges principal Heidi Bishop, right, has worked with dyslexic students for decades and is the school’s first principal. (Ben Ivins/For WABE)

Admissions are done through a lottery system. Families that don’t get in are assigned to a waiting list.

All of the teachers and assistant teachers at Lakes and Bridges are trained in Orton-Gillingham, a method used to teach dyslexic students to read.

Many of the teachers are also dyslexic. So, Bishop says, they can easily relate to the students.

With a student/teacher ratio of 10:1, kids get a lot of individual attention. Throughout the building, teachers are working with small groups of students.

In a sixth-grade language arts class, reading coach Ashley Henderson walks around the room, helping students at their desks diagram sentences.

To help them focus, students at Lakes and Bridges can rock back and forth in chairs like this one so they don't disrupt class or worry about falling over.
To help them focus, students at Lakes and Bridges can rock back and forth in chairs like this one so they don’t disrupt class or worry about falling over. (Ben Ivins/For WABE)

Henderson is one of the teachers who has dyslexia. So, when a student she’s helping gets frustrated, she understands.

“It’s OK,” she tells her. “It’s OK. [Take a] deep breath.”

Lakes and Bridges doesn’t just serve kids with dyslexia. It’s literally built for them.

It’s common for dyslexic students to have other learning challenges. That’s called “comorbidity.” For example, a child with dyslexia may also be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

They go back [to public schools] with a greater sense of self-confidence … and that makes all the difference.

Heidi Bishop, principal, Lakes and Bridges Charter School

So, in addition to struggling with reading, he may also struggle to pay attention in class.

So, Lakes and Bridges has filled its classrooms with flexible furniture. Kids can adjust their own desks, making them taller if they feel like standing or shorter if they want to sit on the floor.

They can rock back and forth in chairs that bend with them, so there’s no danger of them falling onto the floor or disrupting class. Fidgeting is allowed here.

“The other thing we do is the students get PE every single day plus an additional recess so that we’re just trying to get them up and moving as much as possible,” Bishop says.

Students can adjust their own desks, so if they feel like standing, they can raise the height themselves. (Ben Ivins/For WABE)
Students can adjust their own desks, so if they feel like standing, they can raise the height themselves. (Ben Ivins/For WABE)

Learning In A Bubble?

But is it a good idea to put kids with the same disability at one school? Does it isolate them? Give them a false sense of security?

Heidi Bishop doesn’t think so. She’s seen kids transition from specialized, private schools back to public schools.

“They go back with a greater sense of self-confidence, a greater sense of self-esteem, to where they’re less apt to become anxious in the classroom,” she says. “[It] doesn’t mean it still won’t happen. But they have a better sense of self at that point. And that makes all the difference.”

Experts, like Sally Shaywitz, agree with her.

Students at Lakes and Bridges can adjust their chairs so they can sit on the floor or sit up high. Experts say about 40 percent of kids with dyslexia also have another disorder.
Students at Lakes and Bridges can adjust their chairs so they can sit on the floor or sit up high. Experts say about 40 percent of kids with dyslexia also have another disorder. (Ben Ivins/For WABE)

Shaywitz is the co-founder and co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. She has researched dyslexia and worked with dyslexic students for decades. She says there’s a big need for charter schools like Lakes and Bridges, where kids feel accepted.

“Children need to be in an environment, in a climate that values them, that accepts the dyslexia diagnosis, that understands dyslexia and where the needs of dyslexic students are front and center,” Shaywitz said in a phone interview.

Students at Lakes and Bridges say they like being at a place where they don’t stand out for having a learning disability.

“It’s different from other schools because you have a lot of people like you just like the same kind of brains,” said a student named Edie Kate.

Her classmate, Ethan, said he had a hard time at his previous school.

“At my last school, I had lots of trouble because other people were making fun of me because my handwriting and … I’m dyslexic.”

Some kids say it’s easier to make friends at a place where kids have at least one thing in common.

“I like the school because … the people here are so nice to me, and the teachers are teaching me how to do stuff, even though I have dyslexia,” said a student named Josiah.

The demand for schools like this outweighs their availability.

Reading coach Ashley Henderson, right, is one of several teachers at Lakes and Bridges who also has dyslexia. Here, she helps a student at her desk. (Ben Ivins/For WABE)
Reading coach Ashley Henderson, right, is one of several teachers at Lakes and Bridges who also has dyslexia. Here, she helps a student at her desk. (Ben Ivins/For WABE)

South Carolina has plans to open two similar schools. Louisiana also has a couple.

Bishop says Lakes and Bridges has about 49 families on the waiting list. She says it’s not easy to break the news to families that don’t get in.

“All [dyslexic] kids deserve this school,” she said. “So yeah … it’s heartbreaking, and it’s hard.”

Georgia doesn’t have any public charter schools that serve students with dyslexia. But South Carolina and Louisiana started by passing dyslexia laws like Georgia did last year.

The idea is to make sure kids are diagnosed early and receive the services they need. Experts say the legislation is a good first step toward providing dyslexic kids with the support they need in public schools.

Read Part 1 of series here