The Urban League's proposed charter school for youth of color has been at the forefront of the local education conversation in recent weeks. But Madison Prep isn't the only school in town making plans for a launch. Much more quietly, on the second floor of a nondescript west-side office building, another new Madison high school is looking to serve students struggling with dyslexia.
If all goes according to plan, the Wisconsin Institute for Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia Inc. (WILDD), a Madison-based nonprofit that specializes in academic therapy for dyslexic individuals, will open a nontraditional high school next fall. Called the Wisconsin Institute for Learning, or WIL, the private high school will become the first in Wisconsin to offer a curriculum specifically developed for students with reading-based learning disabilities. And with as many as 15% of the American population affected by dyslexia, WILDD executive director Ervin Carpenter feels this is an educational option whose time has come.
"The treatment of dyslexia isn't just about making accommodations," he says. "With proper interventions you can actually remediate it. This high school will be a natural outgrowth of everything we've learned about teaching people with learning disabilities and dyslexia for over 30 years."
For Carpenter and his wife, Kim, the Institute's cofounder, the Wisconsin Institute for Learning is a personal as well as professional calling. Ervin himself was diagnosed with dyslexia in 1982 at the age of 32. And three of their four children, as well as three of their grandchildren, struggle with the disability. This familial experience, coupled with extensive careers as special education teachers in the Dodgeville school system, taught the couple that traditional learning environments often can't meet the needs of dyslexic students. And this realization led them to open WILDD's first independent learning center in Madison in 2005.
The organization has grown significantly since then, including the opening of an additional location in West Allis in 2010. Between the two centers, the institute now employs over 60 people and has assisted over 300 clients, including many veterans. The Carpenters attribute their success to the proprietary multi-sensory teaching program they've developed, based on the Orton-Gillingham method.
"Many children learn to read by generalizing," says Kim. "For example, they will see the word 'cow' spelled out under a photograph of a Holstein in a picture book.... Eventually, when they are developmentally able, these kids will recognize that most other 'ow' words are going to sound the same."
But according to WILDD literature, individuals with dyslexia must approach reading phonetically, focusing first on the structure of language. They learn that letters make sounds, that sounds make words and syllables, and that words make sentences. Students see and write each letter as they say and hear each sound. This is the teaching model that the Carpenters and their staff plan to introduce to WIL's inaugural class of ninth-graders next fall.
"Our class sizes will be small, eight to 10 students at most," says Ervin. "Many of these kids will have felt very isolated in traditional learning environments. Being a poor reader can have a devastating effect on a child's self-esteem. But WIL will allow young adults with dyslexia to learn at their own speed in a group environment." Regularly scheduled one-on-one instructional sessions will take place as well.
Audrey Trainor, associate professor of special education at UW-Madison and an expert on adolescents with learning disabilities, believes there can be academic benefits to attending schools like the Wisconsin Institute for Learning, especially for students at risk of dropping out. But she believes the decision to attend one must be weighed carefully.
"In my research I've spoken to adolescents who don't like the label associated with going to a specialized school for kids with learning disabilities," says Trainor. "They also miss out on the enrichment opportunities a bigger environment can offer, things like playing in the band or participating in sports. Parents need to ask lots of questions regarding the costs, social as well as financial, of making the move."
The new school will be located inside WILDD's current west-side Madison learning center, 6400 Enterprise Lane. Many of the teaching positions will be staffed by the center's current instructors, but it is likely a couple more, who will be trained by the Carpenters, may be added next spring and summer. Applications are currently being accepted for enrollment in the program, and while tuition will be set on an individual basis, it is likely to be on the high side for area private schools due to the one-on-one therapy students will receive.
WIL's instructors will all have four-year college degrees and be certified in WILDD's instructional methods. This certification involves 45 hours of classroom instruction, 100 practicum hours, and 10 hours of mentorship in addition to continuing education and professional development coursework.
"Our teachers aren't just extremely well trained," says Kim Carpenter, "but also passionate about helping students overcome their difficulties to become independent learners."
The school plans to add a new class of freshmen each academic year until it reaches full capacity. A full academic curriculum that adheres to Wisconsin state standards and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction curriculum guidelines is in the works. But WIL staff will try to be creative in how certain requirements are met.
"For physical education, for instance," says Kim, "we'll try to offer tai chi or yoga. We believe these kinds of centering activities can have a profoundly positive effect on kids' attention."
"The ultimate goal is for our high school program to act as a catalyst to overcome learning differences," says Ervin Carpenter. "We want our students to move on to post-secondary educational opportunities."
For additional information about the WIL high school program, contact WILDD at 608-250-5130 or visit their website.