Spotlight on Dyslexia

Catholic Schools are Serving Students with Dyslexia and Other Learning-Based Differences


Since their inception, Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have met students’ spiritual and educational needs. Increasingly, Catholic schools are also providing resources for students on all ends of the learning spectrum.

At St. Odilia Catholic School in Shoreview, Principal Brian Ragatz and reading specialist Judy Donovan work tirelessly to serve students with dyslexia, a language-based learning difference that affects up to 20 percent of the population’s elementary-aged children, according to the International Dyslexia Association. Often, children with dyslexia struggle with reading, spelling, writing and pronunciation.

“Whether it is reading or math, if a child isn’t making progress we need to understand why,” Ragatz said.

Although dyslexia challenges students’ academic success in a traditional classroom setting, it does not affect intelligence. Many people with dyslexia are extremely bright and creative. And with appropriate instruction, they succeed in school and professional settings.

Medical professionals say children can show signs of dyslexia as early as preschool and kindergarten. Some signs include not recognizing rhyming patters, having difficulty learning to tie shoes and left-right confusion. As they grow, they might not associate letters with their appropriate sounds, making reading challenging. While the rest of the class progresses in reading and spelling, a student with dyslexia might begin to feel frustrated and anxious about school.

To help students in individual and group tutoring sessions, Donovan uses the Barton Reading and Spelling System. It is based on the Orton-Gillingham multisensory method, which systematically demonstrates how sounds and letters are related and how they act in words. The method is multi-sensory because students with dyslexia learn best by involving all of their senses: visual, auditory and kinesthetic.

“Barton is such a fabulous program because it teaches everyone,” Donovan said. “With traditional phonics and reading programs, 20 percent just can’t learn to read.”

Ragatz said classroom teachers have been supportive of St. Odilia’s tutoring program. They witness how effective tutoring empowers students to be more successful in the classroom. As a result, they can help students keep that momentum going.

“Not including those who have IEPs [individualized education program], we see approximately 75 students who need additional support in math and reading on a regular basis,” he said. “Of those students, we provide support to 12 students specifically with dyslexia/dysgraphia. However, we know there are others who are not diagnosed.”

Carol Kimlinger serves as the educational resource teacher at St. Thomas More Catholic School in St. Paul. With 16 volunteer parents, grandparents and parishioners, she tutors students with dyslexia in kindergarten through fifth grade using Orton-Gillingham.

“We do not require a diagnosis for a student to receive tutoring,” Kimlinger said. “If a teacher feels someone needs it, we offer it. That way, no one falls through the cracks.”

Classroom teachers at St. Thomas More also are vital to the success of the tutoring program. Many have been motivated to receive Orton-Gillingham training, and they recognize that every student learns differently.

“Fair is not about everyone getting the same thing,” Kimlinger said. “It’s about getting what each person needs.”

Ragatz agrees.

“There are resources that can be implemented that won’t overhaul the budget,” he said. “Catholic schools have encountered much bigger problems than dyslexia, so we don’t need to be hesitant to embrace students with known reading challenges.”

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