Dyslexia pioneer marks a century

The Education Beat

Mission: Margaret Byrd Rawson studied 56 Rose Valley, Pa., students over 55 years and found that many overcame the disability to become fluent readers.

July 11, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MARGARET BYRD Rawson, the "grande dame of dyslexia," turned 100 the last day of June.

I called her at her Frederick County farm home (called Foxes Spy) a few days later to congratulate her and to ask how it felt to be in triple digits only six months before the millennium.

As for her birthday: "I'm still having it. Lots of people have called and written."

As for the millennium: "I'm glad the calendar worked out that way. I'll have lived in two millennia, and there's satisfaction in knowing that nobody else can do that for 1,000 years."

When I first met Rawson in the 1970s, she was among those organizing the Jemicy School in Baltimore, one of the first in the nation to educate children with the language disability known as dyslexia.

Rawson's band was small and dedicated. Many were parents frustrated by the education establishment's misunderstanding and, in some cases, hostility. Doubters were legion -- many thought poor reading was a symptom of retardation -- and Rawson and others (such as Baltimore clinical psychologist Roger Saunders) acted in those days as counselors and hand-holders.

Rawson had been a believer for 40 years. In 1935, while teaching at The School in Rose Valley, Pa., she had tried unsuccessfully to help a young boy who was a poor reader. At the suggestion of a teacher from New York, she sent the boy to Samuel T. Orton, a neurologist who was the first in the country to identify dyslexia and trace its origin to a neurological disorder.

Orton sent the boy back to the school with a set of instructions on how to help him overcome his reading difficulties. (It's now called the Orton-Gillingham method.) The boy was soon reading at his grade level, and Rawson was launched on a lifelong mission.

I asked her what she considered her primary accomplishment. She referred to her 55-year study of 56 Rose Valley students. Titled "Dyslexia Over the Lifespan," the research showed that many of "Rawson's boys" overcame dyslexia to become fluent readers and lead successful professional lives.

"I've had the unique opportunity to see how lives came out," she said. "These students had all shades of ability and intelligence. Many of them had trouble with language, but with the proper help, all of them succeeded. That's something to look back on."

Sacramento scores big on Calif. reading tests

Statewide reading scores came out in California the last week in June, and one of the big winners was Sacramento.

Scores for the capital city's pupils rose from the 35th percentile nationally in first-grade reading two years ago, to the 54th percentile last year and 62nd percentile this year.

"Pretty remarkable," said Betty J. Flanary, coordinator of a foundation-sponsored project known as "Reading Lions." She said that first-grade reading scores rose significantly in 30 of the district's 57 schools and that some of the biggest gains occurred in schools with the highest poverty rates.

Sacramento officials attributed the success to a number of factors, including the replacement of nearly a quarter of the city's principals. If that rings a bell with Baltimoreans, they should know also that the improvements in Sacramento coincided with the introduction of the Open Court reading program -- the program adopted last year by the Baltimore school board.

Sacramento was aided immensely by a $3 million grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Much of that money went to purchase Open Court materials and hire literacy coaches in a "read by age 9" campaign.

Pub Date: 7/11/99

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