How A Charter School On Troy Hill Is Defeating Dyslexia

Provident Charter School, the state’s first public school aimed at helping students overcome dyslexia, uses a mind, body and soul approach to learning.

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A morning last March had three things going against it: it was a Monday, the clocks had sprung forward the day before and the sky was gray with snow flurries.

But inside Provident Charter School in Troy Hill, the morning was bright and busy.

Deon L. Butler, a former receiver with the Seattle Seahawks who is now an advocate for raising awareness about dyslexia, was speaking to sixth-graders. A small group of second-graders were sitting around a table, tapping their index fingers and thumbs together as they said each letter’s sound in the word “job” before spelling it. A third-grade class was practicing listening and note-taking skills. And in the special education office, two small dogs were waiting for students who had earned a visit with them.

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Upstairs in the school’s taekwondo dojo, Team Storm members were previewing a black-belt-level fan pattern they planned to debut at the Pittsburgh Zoo’s Asian Lantern Festival this fall, followed by a board-breaking demonstration.

This is life at Provident Charter School, Pennsylvania’s first public school designed for students who have dyslexia and other language-based disabilities. It opened in August 2016 and serves more than 330 students, grades 2 through 8. It has been such a success that Provident Charter School West opened in Ambridge this school year to serve students in the Beaver County area.

For Jaden Hefflin, who graduated from eighth grade last June, school had been challenging before he attended Provident. Reading “didn’t click for me, and they didn’t give me the attention I needed,” he said. In early elementary school, he was diagnosed with dyslexia in addition to ADHD (a common condition with dyslexia); both interfered with his learning.

Dyslexia, the most common learning disability, is an inherited neurological condition that impacts a person’s ability to learn to read, spell and write. It can also affect social skills, listening comprehension and time management. Dyslexia affects 1 in 5 people.

Provident “was just a lifesaver,” says Jaden’s mom, Denene. Jaden began Provident as a fourth-grader. There, “I didn’t feel like a weirdo or an outcast,” he said.

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How It Started

Curtis Kossman, the founder of Provident and president of its board, says, “Kids come to us humiliated.”

He knows from personal experience. When he was in the third grade, his teacher told him and his parents that he was “either slow, stupid, dumb or lazy, or [he] thought education was a joke.”

That day is “forever imprinted in my brain. It was one of the worst days of my life.”

Subsequent testing revealed Kossman had dyslexia. For the next five years, he received intensive remediation that he estimates cost his parents upward of $300,000 (in 1977-1982 dollars). “I sit here today because of that,” he says.

When Kossman’s two children were young, he saw in them his boyhood experiences. Every day was a challenge and, he says, “the family was in crisis.”

As kids get older, he says, “they have more and more self-reflection and the realization they can’t do what their friends do.” Their self-esteem craters and that manifests in arguments about homework and school as well as behavioral challenges.

In 2010, he attended a conference of the International Dyslexia Association where he learned there were 13 private schools dedicated to children with dyslexia in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. He realized that a private school with an average tuition of $35,000 would not be viable in a city such as Pittsburgh, where the median income was then approximately $44,000. Charter schools, however, are mostly publicly funded from the school districts where students reside.

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Although Pittsburgh Public School officials originally denied the school’s charter application, saying they didn’t believe the proposed school would do anything different from what was available in the city schools, the state Commonwealth Court later cleared the way for the school to open.

Kossman says Provident uses the best aspects from dyslexia-centered private schools and different kinds of charter schools with added holistic components that address “mind, body and soul.”

Resha Conroy, founder and executive director of the Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children, a national nonprofit based in New York, says most schools, public and private, don’t have professionals who are trained to adequately assess for and/or remediate dyslexia. Some schools are also reluctant, she says, to classify students as dyslexic in order to circumvent appropriate accommodations as required under federal law.

An additional underlying issue is in general educational curricula, Conroy explains. “We are failing so many students because we’re not practicing evidence-based reading instruction in most classrooms.” For instance, in 2022, only 52% of third-graders in Pennsylvania were proficient in reading at grade level. If 48% of students aren’t reading at their grade level, “it becomes even more difficult to differentiate who has dyslexia and who doesn’t,” meaning that the root issue remains unaddressed.

Private neuropsychological testing can cost thousands of dollars. “So,” Conroy says, “dyslexia becomes a diagnosis of privilege.”

Conroy says that Black students are two times more likely than other students to have their issue classified as an emotional disturbance rather than a learning disability.

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Impact on Students

At Providence, students are admitted by lottery. If they have not had formal testing, the school can administer nationally recognized reading assessments.

Testing for dyslexia traditionally isn’t given until second grade, but Mimi Perez spotted the condition in her son, Andrew, by the time he was 4. Mimi works in special education and dyslexia runs on her husband’s side of the family. “It was very obvious,” Mimi says. “He had this steel-trap memory [and couldn’t] recognize letters and words at all.”

As Andrew’s peers began to read in first grade, he became angry and anxious about school. He was going into third grade when Provident opened. “It was like the stars aligned,” Mimi says. By the sixth grade, Andrew was fully remediated.

“When you talk to parents for the first time, they think that this is just their child” who is going through such a difficult time, says Julie Ewing, director of enrollment.

Multisenoryroom 230828 Pghmag Provident Dsc 4526Jen Kundick was one such parent.

When her daughter, Anna, was initially diagnosed with ADHD, she was considered too young to be tested for dyslexia. Anna, now a fifth-grader, struggled with paying attention, saying, “That would happen a lot. And it was really tough.”

In fall 2020, Jen learned the extent to which Anna’s school was unwilling to provide appropriate accommodations. She says they insisted that Anna’s struggles were a result of being undermedicated for her ADHD. Anna’s pediatrician and Jen both felt differently; Anna was exhibiting signs — academically and emotionally — of dyslexia, which further neuropsychological testing confirmed was a reading disability similar to dyslexia. Her school continued to resist meeting her needs.

“I left that meeting [after Anna’s diagnosis] very disheartened and quite angry,” Jen says, her voice breaking at the memory.

At the recommendation of Anna’s pediatrician, Jen reached out to Ewing. “To watch somebody kind of give up on your kid is a really tough thing to wrap your head around,” Jen says. “And when [Ewing] said to me, ‘No one here will give up on your kid,’ I was completely blown away by that statement because it was nothing that we had experienced.”

Anna began Provident as a third-grader and says, “Instead of switching schools, you just switched to a whole world. It feels like there’s gonna be a fresh start for you.” Jen noticed an immediate change for the better in her daughter.

“Dyslexia is completely independent of intelligence,” says Conroy of the Dyslexia Alliance. “Very often we equate someone being a non-reader with their intelligence, and so we placed limitations on them, but when you have dyslexia you are capable of doing and performing as well as your non-dyslexic peers.”

In Jaden’s experience, he says his friends and teachers at Provident were “supportive and they make you feel like you’re doing something — like you’re actually completing work, accomplishing things, meeting your goals, meeting the standards.”

To help students get to that place, the school has a full-time psychologist, two counselors and a behavioral specialist. Each classroom has two co-teachers for 12 students per classroom with instruction in reading and writing happening in groups of six. They have the same teachers for two years in a row, so there is less time spent starting over each school year.

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Ordering the Mind

For remediation, Provident uses the popular evidence-based Wilson Reading System. This intensive method combines visual, auditory and tactile elements — as demonstrated by the students who were vocalizing each word’s sounds and tapping their fingers together at the same time. Teachers at Provident are certified practitioners in the 12-step system.

Multisensory and experiential learning is a pillar of Provident. “When you experience something, you understand it better,” says Kossman. Each academic subject includes maker moments, and the building has a dedicated makerspace that includes a 3D design studio, clay wheels/kilns and textiles, among others. The makerspace “has become an integral part of critical thinking [and] problem solving.”

Provident also is the first public school in the country to offer a comprehensive martial-arts program, according to Kossman. It’s written into the school’s charter.

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The physical movement, Kossman says, “helps order the mind,” and the sport offers long-lasting benefits including peer-to-peer support, respect for others and reinforcement of self-respect. For instance, says Kossman, “the ability to have the self-confidence to walk away from a high-peer-pressure event in high school is extremely important.”

Grand Master Robert Zang, a ninth-degree black belt, says, “Our kids are very, very talented.” This year, one student will qualify to become the school’s first black belt.

To test for their initial uniform and subsequent belts, students not only have to master what they’ve learned from Zang, but also show they are “respectful, responsible and ready to learn” in the classroom and have been “an exemplary member of Provident’s student body” as determined by their teacher and principal. This speaks to Provident’s oft-cited motto of “perseverance, compassion and self-control.”

The 52 students who further demonstrate these concepts comprise Team Storm (a special team of role models). “They’re here to set an example to their classmates,” Ewing says.

The school’s distinctive elements aim to give students “a toolbox of skills, not just the fundamental ability to read and write.” Dyslexia, Kossman says, doesn’t have an off switch when school is over. These skills can be as small as harnessing the speech-to-text function on phones or as big as self-advocacy and determination when they need to try again.

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Life Beyond Provident

When eighth-grade graduation nears, Provident hosts a high school fair to assist families in finding the best fit for their teenager.

Jaden headed to City Charter High School, Downtown, this fall. Earlier this year, he said he was “feeling pretty good, confident going into my first year.” He credits Provident’s class sizes and Wilson instruction for that confidence. “It’s gonna be different going to high school, though. Like I might be the only one there with dyslexia.”

Last school year, Andrew’s transition to Central Catholic High School was a bit of a struggle at first. It was larger than Provident and was made up entirely of new faces. By the second quarter, however, he had gotten comfortable enough to ask and answer questions, which helped improve his grades. This year, he is a member of the inaugural class of Central Catholic’s Engineering Institute program that will prepare students for future careers in engineering. He found an interest in engineering at Provident while using the makerspace.

For Andrew and his family, Mimi said, the whole Provident experience “was one lucky thing after the next.”

Amy Whipple is a part-time writer, part-time church secretary and full-time awesome. In addition to Pittsburgh Magazine, her work can be found in PublicSource, PINJ and Imprint.

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