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My name is Karen Robins and my son Ryan is adopted. We started him in kindergarten and he seemed to do fine, but by the time he got to first grade, he was struggling with math and reading concepts. He was in public school for K-1, then we held him back and moved to Georgia.

We put him in a Montessori school, thinking that route would be a better option for him, but we still had the same struggles even though the teaching method was different. We brought him back to public school thinking he would be supported better in that environment. He did get full support, was in a classroom with a paraprofessional, got small pull-out classrooms, and had some really special education teachers who tried their best to serve him.

We had an evaluation done in and outside the school and he was diagnosed with dyscalculia and dyslexia. We stayed in the public-school route through the middle of fifth grade, but he was declining. His test scores would come back and show that he was at a first-grade reading level and a pre-kindergarten math level, even though he was in fifth grade. We were doing fractions for homework when really he should have been practicing math facts.

It became a struggle, not just in math and reading, but it carried over to other subjects. For example, if you were learning about a timeline in social studies, that affects dyscalculia. We were running into problems where good-intention teachers didn’t understand it.

Ryan and his dad.

Dyscalculia is math dyslexia. It affects your ability to understand numbers the way they should be, in dates, time, distance, money, as well as an inability to learn math facts. For an average kid, 10 plus 10, you can almost visualize 20 balls, but with dyscalculia, you don’t understand that.

It affects him playing a card game, a dice dime, anything that includes numbers is affected. By the middle of fifth grade, we started thinking: “what are we going to do for sixth grade?” I knew he needed an Orton Gillingham dyslexia program to be successful, and our county did not offer that, so I went to Gwinnett County and filed a due process against them because we were not getting the services he needed. He was constantly falling back and feeling like a failure.

I did win through Gwinnett County and they promised they would put into place the Orton Gillingham and the Wilson training program and he would have that for an hour and a half each day. They were going to change his math program, but none of that happened. So after a few more months, we figured we would need to bring him somewhere else, we found the Academy of Innovation.

He’s been at this school for one year and it’s been a complete turnaround. He’s been doing the Wilson program and everything that I asked for in the public school. He can spell now, he can read, he’s learning his math and it’s all because it was taught in a different manner. It’s not that he was not intelligent enough to learn it, but his mind needs to be taught differently and this school has provided that.

“It’s not that he was not intelligent enough to learn it, but his mind needs to be taught differently and this school has provided that.”

Ryan’s attitude was anything from agitation, he’d come home and feeling frustrated and we had to sit down and do homework for four hours, which should have taken one. It was useless because he wasn’t learning it. He felt like it was a waste of his time. He had very low self-esteem, felt like he was stupid. He would pull back if he saw kids playing a game that required counting or dice, anything that required numbers. It affected his friendships.

I think being a little older, being held back twice made him feel odder. We held him back because we thought he would catch up, not realizing that doesn’t happen. It also made him just want to quit. I know that if he would have stayed in the public school, he would never have graduated. He wouldn’t have wanted to, because he was unable to do the work.

We were working with the teachers to the best of their abilities, so we had teachers who were on board, wanted to help but couldn’t do anything else. They had to use the common core curriculum and had to stay within the guidelines of the grade level. They said they could modify fractions or modify his reading, but they couldn’t change the program. I just felt like that wasn’t okay. That’s when I requested a change at the end of our IEP meeting, it was obvious that the school couldn’t do anything, so I felt like I had to take it to the next level.

I was constantly looking for schools. A lot of the schools are in Atlanta and are $30,000 a year, which we couldn’t afford. Other schools didn’t support kids with dyslexia or many didn’t even know what dyscalculia was. There are schools specifically for autism, but he didn’t fit into these categories. I came across the school, I looked into it, met with Ava and she did some testing with him. It was just really clear that she understood where he was at, to the point of mid-March and the end of his fifth grade, she said he’s so far behind, he needed to start right then, or would lose months.

Just knowing he’s in a school where teachers are trained to teach kids with dyslexia, it’s very different. It’s affordable. I drive an hour to come here, but to see him thriving, to see that he doesn’t feel stupid, he feels like he’s on track and he’s growing. He got in the car a couple of weeks ago, he said, “ask me to spell anything because I know how to spell now. I know how letters work.” That to me, that was a sense that things are clicking now. I wish we would have done this in first grade. This is the kid who couldn’t spell cat.

Even the teachers in the public school would unknowingly reemphasize the fact that he was “stupid.” If there was a substitute teacher or an event that would put him in a situation that he couldn’t do, or a teacher that would say he’s going to learn those math facts. Some kids discover they will never learn math facts, but they need a calculator. To tell someone you’re going to learn it if you work really hard, but they can’t, it’s defeating. Or to go in a room and advocate yourself and say, “I cannot do this lesson, I have dyscalculia.” At 12 years old, you shouldn’t have to do that, but constantly being put in situations where you have to makes you feel like you’re less.

Now, Ryan is with a lot of kids who share the same struggles. It’s been good for him to be around people that learn differently. He had to do a book report a couple of weeks ago and all of the students were doing them on people who have dyslexia, like Albert Einstein and you start to learn it doesn’t make you less, it just makes you a different type of learner. I think his self-esteem has improved. He reads every day. He has reading goals. They have field trips if you read. We never had time to read. He did two hours of homework that was useless and to make him read on top of that, that didn’t happen. I think the school all-around has been good for him.

He is extremely talented. He does production, lighting, and sound. He’s a musician. He plays the drums. He DJs. He works at our church and runs the whole lighting board. He’s super talented in that area. 100% he will be doing that. He’s already making money DJ’ing. He’s got equipment and machines and knows how to run these programs.

I had heard about Understood and was using it as a reference. My other son has auditory processing disorder so it’s a whole other challenge. I have two kids, one is adopted, one is biological. It was a great resource for me, going on there. I remember looking one day through the eyes of a child with auditory processing and it mimics the classroom setting and hearing the teacher talk, you hear it the wrong way and the papers are going in the background. You can see, wow, this is a huge challenge. I started using that website more for resources for me to help the teachers. If you have dyscalculia, these are some things you can implement in the classroom and print this off for the teacher.

Then, someone reached out to me about forming a group in Georgia and they wanted me to be a parent mentor/parent advocate and I’m just passionate about it. Knowing how many other parents have struggled. I started working for them, went to a couple of meetings in Washington and different events down here. I’d be a parent advocate if someone had a question. Although, the public schools were not very receptive to it, even though I was supporting their efforts. I was trying to help arm the parents, how to help their kids, how to help a child with ADHD read, or listen, or stay focused.

Through that, different open houses, having a table at an event. I talked to so many parents in my boat. I could almost finish their story for them. Through my work with Understood, we got dyslexia to put on the IEP as the word dyslexia, rather than other health impaired. We did a lot of work on trying to get bills passed but I think my main passion was to just help other parents. You start feeling alone, realizing that there’s gotta be a different road for these kids. More schools can do what they’re doing here.

I felt sad to be part of such a good school district and such a hands-on parent that helped my kids every day. I’d go to the classroom and help the teacher. Ryan had the best-case scenario and he still wasn’t making it. It just made me think, what about the kid in the poor school district with teachers that are overwhelmed with behavior issues on top of everything else. Maybe two parents that work and can’t do all the leg work. I just thought, those are the kids who are really falling through the cracks. Or the parents that can’t afford to pull their kid out of public school and send them here, because it’s not free. That’s just my passion through Understood, to help people know there are options and people paving the way for some change.

I had to stop, unfortunately, because I started working full time and homeschooling my high school son. I work remotely. I bring him to school. With that, we wanted to more evening events for parents to come and trainings, but I just wasn’t available to do that. I’ll be back, though. It’s the season of life.

School choice to me means being able to pick the school that is best for your child and to send him there. Not every school fits every kid. I’ve seen that over and over, with my own and lots of others.

Don’t give up on your kid, even when they want to give up and you feel like you’re at the end of your rope. They’re on their journey for a reason and they’re going to end up growing from it. Both my kids have struggles and have had to work really hard for grades, and everything, but I think it’s evolved their character, to become stronger people. I think that’s going to serve them well long-term and I think any child who has challenges along the way, develops them in a way that might not feel good at the beginning, but it makes them who they are. Don’t get discouraged.

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