Lois Combs Weinberg’s oldest son didn’t learn to read in first grade. He still couldn’t read in second grade. Or in third grade either. In fact, he was 9 years old before he was diagnosed with the learning disorder dyslexia.
On this weekend’s edition of Connections on KET, Weinberg discussed how that journey fueled her passion for education and helping students who face similar learning challenges.
Weinberg reports that about 10 percent to 20 percent of children have a learning disorder such as dyslexia, dyscalculia (which makes learning math difficult), or dysgraphia (which affects handwriting and motor skills). She says students with these disorders face a greater risk of dropping out of school and entering the juvenile justice system.
“If you can’t read, you can’t perform [and] you can’t achieve,” Weinberg says.
Working to Help All Students with Learning Challenges
Those facts and her own experiences trying to find help for her son inspired her efforts to create services for children with learning disorders. She studied a community-based program for dyslexic children in Louisville, and then brought those techniques to back to Knott County, where she and her family lived.
Seeing the importance of early diagnosis of learning disorders and a lack of teaching standards to help those students in the classroom, Weinberg lobbied for passage of House Bill 69 in the 2012 Kentucky General Assembly. That law laid out screening and intervention strategies as well as curricula guidelines for children with learning differences. Weinberg also founded a dyslexia program at the Hindman Settlement School and has served as executive director of a non-profit group called IDEA, or the Institute for Dyslexia Education in Appalachia.
Funding Remains an Issue
Despite her efforts and an increasing number of private programs, Weinberg says many parents still have trouble finding help for their children with dyslexia.
“I’m convinced that many of the home-schoolers, many of the private schoolers are students who have not received the specific instruction they need,” Weinberg speculates, ”and the parents find alternatives.”
Weinberg attributes Kentucky’s continued shortcomings in these areas to inadequate state funding for early education. She advocates for screening children as soon as they enter preschool, saying the sooner a child with a learning issue is diagnosed and given remedial assistance, the more likely the child is to have a normal academic career and avoid trouble later in life.
“So it’s a matter of ‘you pay up front in preschool or you pay in double-pay or triple-pay later in life,’ ” Weinberg says.
A Family History with Education
You could say Weinberg has a genetic predilection for education advocacy. Her grandmother was a teacher in Clay County. Her father, Bert T. Combs, worked his way through college and law school to become a Kentucky governor, and later brought the lawsuit that led to the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. And Weinberg has served on the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees, the Council on Postsecondary Education, and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
She says she’s pleased with the gains public schools have made in the state since KERA, even though she argues the system still needs more overall funding. And she’s encouraged by the growth of Kentucky’s community college system after the higher education reforms passed in 1997. Weinberg says she’s also eager to see how the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative will benefit education in eastern Kentucky, where many school districts still face serious economic challenges.
“When you look at the history where my grandmother was in early 1920s, and where the road system stood, the health care system, the educational system, we have made tremendous progress,” Weinberg says. “Now where we get measured is how much farther we have to go.”