Harlem’s P.S. 125 Pilots City’s New Dyslexia Program

This year, between 8:45 and 10:00 a.m., the young students who attend P.S. 125, the Ralph Bunche School on West 123rd Street, are learning how to read.

In one kindergarten classroom, the class chants “ca-len-dar,” complete with clapping and hand movements, splitting the word into syllables. Later, they trace the letters “o” and “c” with their fingers while their teachers demonstrate.

A first -grade class practices something called “rhyme time.” The teacher says, “I’m thinking of stooks,” and the kids hoot back, “Not stooks, books!”

Upstairs, a second -grade teacher drags letters around on a Smart Board to build words while explaining the difference between short and long vowels.

In every classroom at P.S. 125, after a morning meeting where students talk about the day ahead, children move on to phonics and literacy, part of a new program being tested at only two schools in the city, including theirs.

In May, Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks announced a comprehensive screening program for dyslexia, which started this fall with students at 80 elementary schools and 80 middle schools. Adams has been open about his own struggles with undiagnosed dyslexia while growing up in New York public schools.

Pilot programs for dyslexia and literacy education, just beginning at P.S. 125 in Harlem and P.S. 161 in the Bronx, will test new curriculum and bring in two interventionists — trained literacy counselors — to work directly with students struggling to read.

According to the Department of Education, the 80 elementary and 80 middle schools participating in dyslexia screenings also have academic intervention services (AIS) coordinators working with students, according to the Department of Education, and every district has an AIS coordinator available to other schools. All K-12 teachers have completed online dyslexia training, the department said.

P.S. 125 uses a curriculum called Fundations. It focuses on phonics and encourages reading by breaking words into sounds. The pilot program will also offer professional training for staff and workshops to encourage family support for early literacy.

“We have to build community, community with their families too,” said Jason Borges, executive director of New York City Public Schools’ Literacy Collaborative. Working closely with students and families, Borges said, will help the interventionists identify the students that need “extra support.”

Kindergarten, first- and second-grade students have already been screened for dyslexia. Now, the next step is to assess the school’s broader reading needs.

“It will look different for different children in different classrooms, based on our data and the need that we’re seeing,” said Yael Leopold, P.S. 125’s principal. Interventionists may co-teach classes, pull out small groups or work with small groups in classrooms.

The two interventionists, Tiffany Smartt and Lyndell Locker, are both literacy experts with a background in progressive education, a pedagogical model with a focus on collaboration, social responsibility, and learning by doing, among other values. Smartt also has a background in special education.

Dyslexia, a learning disorder that affects reading ability, can hinder students when undiagnosed. For example, in 2019, only 47% of third to eighth graders in city schools achieved reading proficiency, according to a report by Advocates for Children of New York. Among Black and Hispanic students, 36% scored proficient in reading. Dyslexia and other literacy struggles are understood to contribute to the lack of progress in reading.

Sarah Part, a policy analyst with education advocacy group Advocates for Children of New York, explained that while some students struggling with literacy may have learning disabilities, many are considered “instructional failures.” This means that they struggle with reading because they were not taught well or did not receive necessary support.

“They get classified as having a disability,” Part said, “but their disability is caused by the fact that they did not receive high-quality core instruction in the first place.” The new city program will work with all students struggling to read, whether diagnosed with dyslexia or not.

At P.S. 125, Leopold explained, teachers teach literacy in two ways in class. They’ll “organically” incorporate phonics and literacy curriculum into other parts of the school day — such as sounding out “calendar” during the morning meeting.

“Explicit” instruction using Fundations, on the other hand, is scheduled in the morning for each grade, so that everyone is learning phonics at the same time, often through games or songs. Teachers might incorporate kinesthetic learning styles, like writing out letters with their fingers or using hand movements when breaking words into syllables.

“‘Explicit’ doesn’t have to mean boring,” Leopold said. “It can be fun or interactive.”

Debbie Meyer, a Department of Education consultant and a board member of the non-profit Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children, has been advocating for a program like this for years. Students with dyslexia, she pointed out, are more likely to feel disconnected from school. “Kids just check out,” she said. “Whether they drop out or not, they check out.”

For parents of students with dyslexia, finding access to adaptive education is a long, complicated and often expensive road. “People with resources can get tutoring, get into the private schools, but the ones that don’t have the resources can’t,” said Meyer.

On a recent October morning, most parents dropping their kids off at P.S. 125 had not heard of the program, but one parent, Adam Green, was interested in learning more. Green said that his older child, who has dyslexia and went to P.S. 125, didn’t receive the right kinds of supportive services and now attends a specialized school for dyslexic students. It “was not an easy path to take,” Green said. “It’s completely impossible if you don’t have that cash cushion.”

Borges referred to programs like P.S. 125’s as “lighthouse models,” used to guide programs at other schools. Smartt, one of the interventionists, believes that the school’s socioeconomic diversity will help assess strategies across the board. About 66% of students at P.S. 125 qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to U.S. News and World Report.

One potential concern, however, is the city’s focus on elementary education. Prevention will only benefit those coming up through the system, but “we know there are lots and lots of students who are older, who aren’t in those grades, who are really struggling,” Part said. “They need help right now.”

She also cautioned against hailing the program as a cure-all.

“People always want a quick fix in education, they want to see results right away,” she said. “This is going to be a long-haul effort, and we need a long-term commitment, long-term investment.”

The mayor’s office has said that the Department of Education hopes to introduce dyslexia programs in each borough by next fall, and to have every teacher attend introductory training for adaptive and progressive literacy instruction by April.

For now, the chance to level the playing field for her students is a great joy for Principal Leopold. “We’re finally adjusting the opportunity gap that’s been there for such a long time,” she said.

When asked to participate in the pilot, Leopold said her school was immediately on board. “Nobody had to convince me, and us, that this is how children need to learn how to read,” she said.