Reading to Live: Dyslexia and Racial Disparities in Minnesota

photo by Sarah Whiting

In 2015, I began speaking with parents across Minnesota, primarily Black, brown, Indigenous, and low-income families, regarding their concerns, truths, and experiences in K-12 education. I was serving as a Promise Fellow with AmeriCorps VISTA, and I realized K-12 advocacy was where I needed to be. As a Promise Fellow, I had my first experience inside of a school where the atmosphere affirmed my culture as a Black woman. I was in charge of community partners, after-school programming, and parent engagement. Every enrolled family was supposed to have 20 hours per year of school engagement, and it was my job to make that happen. The school where I worked was 98 percent Black. I knew that, despite racial stereotypes I had been hearing all my life, as long as barriers such as transportation, food, and child care are taken care of, families will fully engage with their school community.

I quickly realized that parents needed an outlet to share their experiences. The parents I spoke with knew there was something wrong with the level at which their children were reading, but they were unsure exactly how far behind their children were. Parents also recognized that their children were displaying behavioral problems at school, but not at home. I realized there was a problem bigger than they even knew.

I remembered hearing the term dyslexia, but I never knew what it meant. After I educated myself, I learned that this word was foreign to a lot of the parents I spoke with. I started to research more about dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes it harder for people to associate speech sounds with written words, through the Minnesota Dyslexia Advocates and Decoding Dyslexia organizations. While many white families know about dyslexia and have the resources to get their children diagnosed and enrolled in special services, if many non-white socioeconomically disadvantaged families have no idea what dyslexia is and have limited resources, I asked myself how could they provide the necessary interventions? 

Read or Die

Minnesota has some of the worst disparities across the board for Black children, families, and individuals in health, economics, housing, the criminal legal system, and school suspensions and academic outcomes. If a child does not gain the foundational skills of reading before they leave the third grade so that they are able to read to learn, the disparities begin and continue into adulthood. People who cannot read are more likely to have interactions with the criminal legal system and lack health insurance.

It has always been read or die for the Black community. Historically, if an enslaved person learned how to read, it could save their life. After the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution gave Black people newfound freedom and the opportunity to read. Black people saw the importance of literacy immediately after freedom, and began to build primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

In 1896, when Plessy v. Ferguson was ruled and segregation was legal, Black people were relegated to second-class citizenship and received a second-class education. The Civil Rights movement began with the landmark education decision of Brown v. Board of Education to dismantle segregation in public schools. It was a read-or-die situation for people like Ruby Bridges, the Little Rock Nine, and James Meredith as they risked their lives to integrate. 

The Science of Reading

According to Decoding Dyslexia MN founder Rachel Berger, school systems across Minnesota have not been set up to identify dyslexia as a disability, and educators are not trained to do so themselves. When a student who is dyslexic is not properly identified or given the appropriate intervention, it increases their risk of being placed in special education.

Students with identified learning disabilities are more likely to have characteristics that look like negative behavior because they cannot engage in their learning community. 

Students of color are disproportionately suspended in the U.S., which leads to an emotional wreck for the child and further contributes to the achievement gap. 

Dyslexia can be inherited genetically, but it can also be influenced by instructional casualties. When at-risk students are provided instruction that is not based in the science of reading, they can show characteristics of dyslexia. Districts need to begin using reading curriculum and interventions steeped in the science of reading, which bases the fundamentals of reading instruction on phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, fluency, and vocabulary and text comprehension.

In December, Minnesota lawmakers approved a $3 million grant to fund teacher training in the LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) program. 

This year, Senate Republicans introduced a plan to spend over $30 million of the state’s $9 billion surplus for kindergarten through fifth grade teachers to complete a language program based on the science of reading. DFL party members proposed $4.75 million in spending on LETRS training as part of their proposed $3.3 billion education funding package over the next three years. Lawmakers did not negotiate in time to come to an agreement this session. 

Many students are reading at the sixth-grade level as juniors and seniors in high school, so teachers in all grade levels need this training. My hope is that every current and pre-service teacher in the country receives LETRS training so that students everywhere can become readers.

Khulia Pringle (she/her) is the Minnesota State Director for National Parents Union and serves in the City of Saint Paul Legislative Advisory Committee on Reparations. She completed her undergraduate studies in human service at Metropolitan State University and has a graduate certificate in secondary urban education with licensure.