Dyslexic students have been underserved

Scott Reeder
Posted 3/11/22

The tears still flow. I met Chip Gass for lunch at a Springfield diner March 4. I hadn’t seen him for decades, but we have something in common that places us in a unique community: those with dyslexia.

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Dyslexic students have been underserved


The tears still flow.

I met Chip Gass for lunch at a Springfield diner March 4. I hadn’t seen him for decades, but we have something in common that places us in a unique community: those with dyslexia. 

I first met Chip 30 years ago when I was a young reporter in the Quad-Cities and he was a political operative helping people get elected to city councils and the Rock Island County Board.

When we met at the diner, he left his Mercedes sedan in the restaurant’s parking lot. He has a salary north of $100,000 and a title of “executive” within a state agency. But he is still haunted by his childhood struggles in school. 

The Springfield man said as he munched on his horseshoe that teachers didn’t appreciate his struggle. Tears raced down his face as he recalled being held back in the second grade and the toll it took on his self-esteem.

But no one in Rock Island schools diagnosed or sought to address his dyslexia. The story was much the same for me. When I was in the third grade, I encountered a cruel teacher who would pick me up like a rag doll and shake me when I struggled to recognize a word. Never once did she offer any individual attention or help – only threats and punishment.

If I made a mistake I’d expect to be shaken. It was a pretty rough way to deal with a 7-year-old. Her mantra was continuous: “You’re just not trying.”

My mother didn’t buy into this nonsense. She could see how much I tried. So, she spent two hours a day reading with me all through the third grade. I would read one page of the library book and she’d read the next.

Then the teacher decided I would only be allowed to check out picture books from the school library. What a pedagogical gem she was. 

My mother then hauled me weekly to the public library and within a year and a half, I was not only a proficient reader but in love with it. Today, I read three or four newspapers a day and a book a week. 

Other teachers had to know what was going on in that classroom. But they did nothing. The principal was aware, but he did little to alleviate the situation. 

My parents took me for an evaluation at the University of Iowa Hospitals and came back with a diagnosis: dyslexia. Still, the school district did nothing. Their reasoning? My IQ was too high to receive special help.  

Although I was diagnosed in the third grade, the first time one of my teachers discussed with me whether I was dyslexic was my junior year of college. And the professor had a degree in journalism – not education. 

It’s tempting to throw the same words back at teachers that they once threw at me: “You’re just not trying.”

But that would be unfair. Many do care but they operate within systems that fail to equip them to recognize dyslexia or act upon it when they see it. 

Anne Brewster is the director of the Children’s Dyslexia Center in Springfield, a charitable endeavor of the Scottish Rite Masons. Historically, the center has offered its services at no cost to children.

Specially trained tutors at the center help words come alive for youngsters. Reading proficiency often follows. 

“You don't see the word dyslexia used that often in the school settings,” Brewster said. “And I think that that might have to do with misconceptions and confusion around exactly what it is. And maybe it’s because there is not a really clear diagnostic tool that says you're dyslexic or you're not dyslexic. …. I think sometimes people actually think it's just fake or made up or not real. Or they just think only rich people have dyslexia because a lot of people in schools don’t get support for it. So, they seek private tutoring because it's not always acknowledged or addressed in schools as dyslexia.”

I’m left thinking of a family friend, Larry Chadwick. He was a brilliant optometrist in my hometown of Galesburg and a friend of my father’s. He died last month at the age of 90.

In his obituary, I read these words: “His education began in a one room elementary school where he excelled in math and did not learn to read. His unconventional mother took matters into her own hands and began to search for a school that could teach her brilliant son how to read. She found a reading expert at Roosevelt Military Academy who taught dyslexic students how to read before dyslexia was even understood or diagnosed. At age 13, Larry boarded a train from Detroit to Aledo, Illinois, where he began the next stage of his life.

Larry learned to read, then excelled in school.”

I’d never realized that Dr. Chadwick and I had the same condition. It makes me admire him all the more. 

But I can’t help but wonder, “If they were successfully treating kids with dyslexia in the 1930s, why do so many youngsters fail to get the help they need today?”

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at: sreeder@illinoistimes.com.