Einstein School enlisting area lawmakers to help save it


Einstein Charter School teacher Jessica Bily teaches six grade students Wednesday, September 11, 2013.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 5:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 5:49 p.m.

Correction: The Einstein School received its first F grade this year. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that it was the school's second F grade.

Teachers and administrators at the Einstein School, a charter for students with learning disabilities, are fighting against legislation that could close the school if it receives another failing grade.

Under Florida law, if a school receives a grade of F several years in a row, based on FCAT scores, it can be closed. The Einstein School received its first F this year.

But the students' FCAT scores, and by extension the school's grade, are never going to improve enough to meet state lawmakers' expectations, Einstein teachers say.

That's because the school serves only students who have dyslexia, attention disorders, language or speech impairments or other language-based learning difficulty.

The 105 students in grades 2 through 8 learn to read through a process called neurodevelopment of words, called NOW for short. It's highly effective, Dickhaus said, and many students are put back in public schools after a few years in the program.

But the methods teachers give students for reading and writing require interactivity with text, which does not lend itself easily to the computerized testing now making its way down to the elementary grades.

For example, during a reading lesson for second- and third-graders Wednesday, teacher Rachel Howard showed her students how to recognize sounds by looking into a small mirror or feeling their vocal cords vibrating.

“That's why they're at our school, because they can't read, write, speak or spell by traditional methods,” which is what tests like the FCAT measure.

This puts the school in an unusual predicament.

Students with cognitive impairments are exempt from taking the FCAT and instead take an alternate assessment. But students at the Einstein School have normal IQs -- “They just learn by non-traditional methods,” reading teacher Valerie Dickhaus said, so they're not eligible for the alternate assessment.

Administrators are looking into getting an “alternative” rating for the school, although that label is typically applied to students with low attendance or behavioral issues, so it's unclear whether the Einstein School is eligible for the rating.

Assigning an F to the school is unfair, Dickhaus said. This year, the school lost $60,000 of capital outlay money as a penalty for receiving the F grade.

“That's not going to help us do better,” she said.

Dickhaus and Principal Christine Aurelio invited state Rep. Keith Perry and representatives from the offices of state Rep. Clovis Watson and U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho to the school last week to see the difference in teaching methods at the Einstein School and talk about curbing legislation that could force the school to close.

Perry said he could tell, from speaking with teachers as well as parents whose lives were changed during their children's time at the school, that the program works.

“Not only is it important that we keep this program up and running and protected . . . but [we need to] look at implementing this in other areas around the state,” he said.

Perry said he has been working with state Rep. Marlene O'Toole, who is the chairwoman of the state's education committee, to see what kind of immediate protection can be sought for the Einstein School. She will visit the school in the coming weeks, Perry said.

“I think we can fix this legislatively,” Perry said.

Cindy Wielgos' daughter Leila started at the Einstein School in third grade. Perceptual issues gave Leila trouble with reading comprehension and retention, and she was so far behind grade level that she could barely write her own name, Wielgos said.

Wielgos and her daughter were spending three or four hours a night on homework without making any progress, which ruined Leila's self-esteem, Wielgos said.

That all changed when Leila went to the Einstein School.

“We saw her grades improve, and her ability to read and function independently and do her own homework, within a year,” Wielgos said.

Leila, now 17, was able to join traveling soccer and basketball teams and run track. With stronger reading skills, her opportunities and her self-esteem improved, her mother said.

Leila graduated from the program two years ago and has had success with virtual school since then, which Wielgos said would've been impossible before.

For families like hers, Wielgos said, public school is not an option.

“The methods [Einstein teachers] use to teach reading for children who don't learn through traditional methods significantly impacted our life,” she said.

The school-grading system is not a fair way to assess the school, she said. “I think it would be a huge detriment to the families and students who are struggling with these issues, to eliminate that option for them by following a rule that frankly seems to be arbitrary.”

Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gainesville.com.

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