Strauss Literacy Initiative's advisory council: a guiding light to literacy

Categories: EMPOWERMENT AND SUCCESS: Student Enrichment, EMPOWERMENT AND SUCCESS: Literacy Support, Strauss Literacy Initiative,

If the Strauss Literacy Initiative’s goal is to ensure that every child has the best possible chance of reading at grade level, then there is one ingredient that has proved pivotal: expert input.

The Strauss Advisory Council has been instrumental in ensuring that grantmaking is consistent with best practices and offers ongoing consultation throughout the year to help inform and guide implementation of programming. Currently comprised of three members, a developmental pediatrician, school psychologist and parent of a child with dyslexia, the group is “small by design,” said Kirsten Russell, the foundation’s vice president of Community Impact.

The advisory council offers guidance on programs at every stage, whether looking at an application for a potential new initiative or deciding how to move forward after evaluating a grant report from a pilot. The council members themselves don’t select programs, but their varied expertise helps inform strategies and intended outcomes. But just as often, it can be as simple as Russell and the team wanting to better understand the nuances and impact of new legislation or learn more about instructional methods that support the science of reading.

The Community Foundation stewards the fund, but doesn’t see itself as the pre-eminent experts in literacy and dyslexia. That is why it is so important to enlist those who are.

“Literacy is a huge indicator of long-term success. So this fund is something that we not only take very seriously but want to do right by the donors who have firsthand experience of dyslexia,” said Russell. “We are not the experts in dyslexia and solving some of our bigger literacy problems, but we have the resources to address it. And to really do that with fidelity, we need to be guided by the research and guided by people with both academic and work experience, as well as lived experience.”

Both Dr. Jesse Steif, a school psychologist and former literacy specialist with Pinellas County Schools who is now the president of The Reading League Florida, and Dr. Eric Tridas, a Tampa-based developmental pediatrician who has been the president of the International Dyslexia Association, have served on the council for the last few years. Getting to watch the Strauss Literacy Initiative grow and improve in that time has been gratifying, Steif said.

“As the initiative has been learning with their constituents, I’ve been able to shape the direction of their actions, which has been really nice,” Steif said.

As the direction has been forged, the Community Foundation’s Community Impact team has not only heeded guidance from the council but also invested themselves in understanding the provenance of the guidance. This has led to their immersion into all that shapes the educational landscape, including pedagogy, policy, and advocacy.

“It’s been good to both advise them and also kind of witness their own learning as they have grown,” Steif said.

The third member, Nicole Cusimano, a parent of a high-school-age daughter with dyslexia, was brought on to advise the group about a year ago. She brings an equally important lens to the council.

“As a parent, I appreciate that my voice is considered,” she said. “It’s a different perspective when you’ve lived it, and the fact that I have an older child and have been in the fight longer, I think, matters.”

Russell echoes this, noting that parents are “the experts in their own lives.” As she says, a dyslexia diagnosis is just as emotional as it is physical. Helping parents help their children is an integral part of the Strauss Literacy Initiative, but without parents involved, it’s hard to do that in the most effective way.

Already, the council has steered the foundation in certain directions, like emphasizing teacher professional development, as with programs at Sarasota and Manatee County Schools and the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, rather than simply diagnosing dyslexia in individual children.

“When you learn about dyslexia and what it takes to move the reading skills of large groups of children with dyslexia, you quickly understand that it’s not necessarily a single child issue,” Steif said. “In order to move the dial for individual children with dyslexia, you necessarily have to be in the business of improving systems.”

But you can’t change what you don’t understand. That’s why, in an attempt to fully grasp the diagnosis-to-instruction process, Steif is working with a parent of a recently diagnosed child to navigate it all.

Cusimano knows firsthand how treacherous this can be. Her daughter was diagnosed early—by the end of preschool, it was clear she was not learning as quickly as the other students. By the end of first grade, the school district had made her an individualized education plan. But it was still a constant negotiation to make sure she was working with teachers who understood how to instruct a child with dyslexia.

That tension is consistent with what practitioners like Tridas and Steif see as some of the greatest challenges surrounding dyslexia. Some of the learning disability’s complications can actually be prevented through early identification and, perhaps more importantly, intervention, but there has to be oversight as to how that intervention is implemented.

“They need to receive evidence-based instruction, but if the person that has been teaching them has not been trained in evidence-based strategies, they cannot give you what they don’t have,” Tridas said. “The problem begins with the training of teachers while at university. They come out and they don’t have this knowledge.”

It’s clear that any strides made in improving literacy outcomes for children with dyslexia will have major implications for years to come. Steif calls literacy “one of the great social issues of our time.” Statistically, those who are incarcerated or don’t graduate from college or high school often also have an undiagnosed or unremediated reading difficulty, he said. Research backs this up: 85 percent of all juveniles in the juvenile court system are functionally low-literate, according to Literacy Mid-South, while a longitudinal study of almost 4,000 students born between 1979 and 1989 found those not reading proficiently by third-grade were almost four times more likely to not graduate.

The issue with literacy difficulty is that it compounds as students age. Children who have difficulty reading read less while those who enjoy it and have a facility with it read more. This creates an initial disparity that widens overtime.

But a child predisposed to dyslexia from birth isn’t thereby effectively sentenced to a lifetime of trouble with reading. It’s quite the opposite, Steif said—quality and intense instruction in Kindergarten through third grade can actually mitigate any predisposition so much so that a student will never develop “severe reading issues.”

This is, in large part, where experts like Tridas and Steif come in. Not only can they innately understand where the holes already are in dyslexia instruction, given their knowledge of the latest research, but they are able to pinpoint exactly what a program needs to be effective—and that includes ongoing monitoring of its implementation.

“If the program is not done in the way it was designed, it will never work,” Tridas said. “There are powerful scientists in the state of Florida that are influencing instruction all over the country, but the impact on day-to-day instruction takes time. It takes 10 years for the research to catch up with implementation.”

That’s why the advisory council holds such an important role for the Strauss Literacy Initiative—they can offer guidance on each program from start to finish, ensuring that aforementioned fidelity to both the research and the original mission occurs.