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TF student takes concerns to Helena

Callie McGillis helps make a difference for other students battling dyslexia


February 7, 2019

Shana Neesvig

HOPING FOR A CHANGE - Callie McGillis (pictured with her younger sister Kelci) went to Helena asking for legislative support of SB 140, a bill requiring state educational institutions to establish dyslexia identification, screening and intervention. When she grows up, Callie wants to become a teacher who specializes in instructing dyslexic children.

For more than five years, Thompson Falls resident Maggie McGillis and her sixth-grade daughter Callie, have been praying for their dream to come true. With some newly gained momentum, it just might be in their favor.

Callie took her concerns to the Thompson Falls School Board on Monday, and on Wednesday she joined 100 other Montana families in Helena to speak to the legislature about supporting Senate Bill (SB) 140. Passing of this bill would require the Office of Public Instruction (OPI) to guide all public educational institutions in identifying and providing dyslexia screening, intervention techniques and trained assistance for specialized teaching of dyslexic children, collectively giving these students a greater chance of succeeding in the classroom and socially.

Currently, public schools are not mandated to provide dyslexia identification or screening practices, have staff trained in dyslexia education, nor address the needs of students identified with dyslexia, according to Maggie.

Dyslexia is defined as "a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence." Maggie shared that it is one of the most common learning disabilities and it is estimated that one in five people have dyslexia.

"A child who is blind, you cannot say, 'you have to see,' or a child in a wheelchair, you cannot make them run in P.E. class," Maggie said, pleading her case that dyslexic children such as her daughter simply cannot be expected to read and understand class material in a conventional way.

It was clear to Maggie that something was amiss with Callie quite early on in her life. By kindergarten, she was falling behind academically, and her social health seemed compromised. Maggie reassured it was not due to the lack of effort from Callie, herself or her husband. Maggie said they would read at home constantly and Callie would try so hard, but the frustration was too much.

When these problems were recognized in kindergarten, Callie was prescribed attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication to increase focus and change undesired behaviors. Still, "I wasn't reading as well as the other kids," Callie shared. "I struggled in every subject and I just didn't get it like all the other kids did." The medication was not helping. In fact, Maggie reported that when Callie was taking the medicine, she would just fall asleep during school. "This just wasn't going to do it!" Maggie said. "It was like nobody wanted to help at all."

Things changed in first grade, when Callie's teacher Mandy Buckingham (a former Thompson Falls teacher who the McGillis' say was, and continues to be, their saving grace) became a huge advocate in figuring out what was going on with Callie. Buckingham refused to believe that she had behavior or focus problems, shared Maggie. She relentlessly performed preliminary testing and suggested Callie be screened for dyslexia, as the McGillis' suspected to be the problem. It was no surprise to the McGillis family when the test, implemented in Missoula, came back positive for dyslexia because Callie's father, Shawn, is also dyslexic.

From that point forward, it was game on. Callie was going to catch up to her peers and recalls tutoring with Buckingham before and after school. "We have difficulty with nouns, so I remember working with tiles that were nouns and I had to figure how to put them into sentences," Callie said. "I cannot remember sight words (a huge part of the reading curriculum) and I cannot remember math facts."

"People with dyslexia are described like a person's fingerprint," Maggie said. "Everyone's dyslexia is different." This makes it difficult to figure out what tools can be implemented to help encourage academic growth. For Callie, Buckingham had developed a clear picture of what benefited Callie and helped construct a specialized 504 Plan (set accommodations for successful learning to be implemented at elementary and secondary educational institutions).

"The 504 is super important," Maggie said. "When her accommodations are not being met it is quite noticeable. When they are, she is on the honor roll." The accommodations include longer testing times, use of multiplication charts, a decrease in homework workload, the ability to decline reading out loud to the class and the freedom to sit on a bouncy ball seat because it helps Callie's ability to focus.

Maggie stated that over the years she continually asked the school to implement the well-known Susan Barton System, a teaching program for dyslexic children she has become quite fond of, but they have refused to do so and stated that they did not have anyone trained to teach the course. Maggie shared that in the past she was told that even though the school owns the program, and that it was implemented at one time, "it was not part of the school curriculum, and in order for Callie to keep her 504 (accommodations), she (Callie) had to have Susan Barton tutoring," leaving the McGillis family in a bind.

As the girls continue with persistence and tenacity, they feel things are moving in the right direction. Both Maggie and Callie feel hopeful with the progress they have made with Bill Cain, first-year superintendent at Thompson Falls School District, and Len Dorscher, Thompson Falls Elementary and Junior High principal. "I am very thankful for Len's support," Maggie said, "and Mr. Cain, he just blows everyone away. He is wonderful!" Maggie shared, adding that it has been a blessing that Cain has arrived shortly after Buckingham left, filling that sorely felt void of support and understanding.

Cain feels that Wednesday just might end up being a "big deal" for those effected by dyslexia. "I am just very proud of her and for how hard she works," he shared of Callie.

Callie McGillis (center) testified before the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee on Wednesday with her mom Maggie and Thompson Falls Superintendent Bill Cain.

Dorscher said that Callie should be commended for her willingness "to blaze a trail and help others who simply need a voice." He shared that the school does their best "to work with families and students to develop plans to help level the playing field," but added that he feels most schools do not have the knowledge or resources "to accomplish a comprehensive screening process" or implement a program for dyslexic students without guidance from OPI and will need training and support from the state to make this successful. "I like that SB 140 would give dyslexia a definition and help bring it to the attention of educators, parents and students."

Callie is excited to share her story and she is no longer ashamed of who she is. "I just want to help other kids that have dyslexia that didn't get help," Callie shared as being the main reason she went to Helena and took her qualms to the board, as she is aware of at least one other student in her school with dyslexia.

"I think it's going to have a big impact hearing it from the kids," Maggie said of the students who each had two minutes to share their story with state representatives. "It has always been something to be ashamed of and not talked about. But not anymore, now the kids are going to own it!"


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