Tim Castanza admits that he was “triggered.” The year was 2016, and Castanza, then working for the New York City Department of Education, attended a Community Education Council meeting in Staten Island, where several mothers of kids with dyslexia spoke. The public schools didn’t have any programs for their children, they said, describing how long schools took to offer proper evaluations and how the district failed to provide adequate services, even after children received diagnoses. Along with Rose Kerr, a retired DOE principal and director of education for Staten Island’s borough president, Castanza wanted to do something. “I know what good phonics instruction looks like because of my elementary school teacher,” Castanza, who received an ADHD diagnosis in college, said. “Still, I had a lot of needs that were not met at that school.”
Three years later, Castanza opened the school that he wished he could have attended himself: Bridge Prep Charter School. Designed according to scientific reading instruction, the school offers all the necessary support for children with dyslexia and other language-based learning difficulties. City leaders should learn from its impressive results.
Bridge Prep’s advantage consists not just of a different curriculum but of a different way of training teachers and an expansive capacity to meet students’ needs. Nearly two-thirds of students at Bridge Prep have an Individual Education Plan, and nearly all of these receive multiple services. Seven in ten Bridge Prep students also hail from low-income families, which often cannot afford extracurricular phonics coaching (a common but expensive practice among high-income students who struggle to read). The school, therefore, offers 60 minutes of daily instruction based on the Orton-Gillingham Approach. Phonics instruction gets delivered to students grouped by grade and ability. This is “equity,” Castanza says. A school is “not prepared to teach every kid” unless it has a structured literacy program, he adds.
Georgia Orosz’s son has benefited. When he came to Bridge Prep to repeat second grade, he was reading at kindergarten level, had a dyslexia diagnosis, and was writing in reverse. And his struggles at school had become a behavioral issue. His mother was so frustrated with the Staten Island public school he attended that she planned to homeschool him—until a therapist referred her to Bridge Prep. Her son enrolled in the school right before the pandemic. By the beginning of fifth grade, he was reading at grade level.
“Well, it’s kind of too bad that we’ve got the smartest people at our universities, and yet we have to create a law to tell them how to teach.”
The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”
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