Burlington father, son end years of hiding their dyslexia
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Scott Cork and his son Shawn know what it's like to constantly hide feelings of inadequacy and shame.
The Corks, who live in Burlington, struggled academically, unable to tackle simple tasks like reading a page.
Symptoms of dyslexia
In elementary school:
• Dysgraphia (slow, non-automatic handwriting that is difficult to read)
• Letter and/or number reversals continuing past the end of first grade
• Extreme difficulty learning cursive
• Slow, choppy, inaccurate reading
• Guesses based on shape or content
• Skips or misreads prepositions (at, to, of)
• Ignores suffixes
• Cannot sound out unknown words
•Extremely poor spelling
• Often cannot remember sight words (i.e. they, were, does)
• Frequently omit beginning sounds (pisgetti for spaghetti or pacific for specific) or changes a sound within a word (aminal for animal or grill for girl)
• Difficulty telling time on a clock with hands
• Problems in math and memorizing multiplication tables
• Problems in directionality and memorizing a sequence of steps
• Difficulty in finding the correct word
• Lots of "whatchamacallit" & "thingies"
• Jokes are frustrating because they don't understand the humor in words
• Extremely messy bedroom, backpack and desk
• Dreads going to school
• Complains of stomach aches or headaches
• Frequently asks to stay home from school
In high school
All of the other symptoms plus:
• Limited vocabulary
• Extremely poor written expression
• Large discrepancy between verbal skills and written
• Unable to master a foreign language
• Difficulty in reading printed music
• Poor grades in many classes due to low test scores and missing work
• May drop out of high school
Education history similar to above plus:
• May have to read a page two or three times to understand it
• Extremely poor spelling
• Difficulty in putting thoughts onto paper
• Dreads writing memos or letters
• Difficulty with right versus left
• Confusion of north, south, east, and west. Often gets lost, even in a familiar city
• Understanding or reading a map is extremely difficult
• Sometimes confuses b and d, especially when tired or sick
Source: York Educational Services
They hid in the back of the classroom and performed so poorly that they were held back a grade in elementary school.
Both doubted they could graduate high school and thought they wouldn't go very far in life.
As it turns out, both have dyslexia, and getting private, specialized tutoring has transformed their lives, they say.
Shawn, 19, started tutoring in October 2012 during his senior year at Central High School. After getting D averages most of his life, he's now earning straight A's at Elgin Community College.
Scott, 47, an assistant basketball coach at ECC, began receiving tutoring about three months ago and is starting to overcome his difficulties with words and reading.
Both said their confidence has skyrocketed.
"Now that my GPA is looking better, I am more happy now with what I am doing," Shawn said.
Added Dad, "When I go recruiting now I don't feel as scared to talk. I'm more assertive."
He also wants to go back to school, once a seemingly unattainable dream.
"It's been my dream to get a college degree and be a head coach. Maybe go into sports management and get an athletic director job," Scott said.
The Corks have been working with dyslexia tutor Holly York, founder of York Educational Services in Elgin.
Shawn has moderate dyslexia, while his father's is severe, York said.
"Shawn blossomed like a flower. He would light up like you wouldn't believe," she said, adding that the journey with Scott has been emotional, too. "I've cried with Scott so many times," she said. "The first time he was so nervous, so ashamed."
Scott said he found the courage to face his dyslexia — a hereditary trait — after seeing his son's transformation. People with dyslexia often learn how to hide it, teaching themselves tricks to get by, he said.
"For example, spelling the word 'Chicago' was impossible. I thought of 'Chic' the rock band, and 'God.' I do that for quite a few words still today."
His internal turmoil affected his interactions with his wife, Heidi, he said.
"We've had many arguments, many fights. I'll get frustrated. I know she's helping, but in my heart it feels like belittling."
The Corks decided to get help for Shawn after watching videos about dyslexia that York posted on Facebook. Cork knew York because he coached her son.
"A couple (of the videos) made me tear up. They hit so close to home," Shawn said.
The tears didn't stop there. "I think it was a tear fest the first time we sat down with Holly," Heidi said.
Over the years, Heidi said, she approached teachers about her son's struggles, but no one had substantial solutions. Once, when Shawn was in the sixth grade, a fellow parent referred her to a psychologist, who recommended extensive testing over the course of several weeks.
Shawn refused, fearing being labeled a special education student.
"I was hardheaded, thinking that if I was labeled, I would not be as popular, I would lose a lot of friends," he said. "It was dumb of me."
His mother didn't push him, a decision she now regrets. "When I looked at his face I just saw fear, and that kind of backed me away from pushing," she said.
The Corks and York say teachers are not adequately trained to spot the warning signs of dyslexia.
"Dyslexia has been around for how long?" Heidi said. "And they still don't look at it, they don't recognize it for whatever reason."
York, a former special education teacher and administrator for Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300, agreed.
"This disability is neurologically based, there is endless research, and they are still not teaching it in school," she said.
About 15 to 20 percent of the population has some kind of language-based learning disability, with dyslexia being the most common cause of difficulties in reading, writing and spelling, according to The International Dyslexia Association.
Instructional methods for students with dyslexia are effective for all students, York said. Some schools implement them but usually don't do it consistently over time, and are not effective, she said.
Schools don't provide testing for dyslexia, so parents have to do that on their own; private tutors can charge between $40 and $125 per hour, she said.
After York's testing showed Shawn had dyslexia, the school district gave him a 504 Plan, which allows accommodations for students who have disabilities — in his case, more time for tests, and being graded on content, not grammar, his parents said.
Sarah Nolan, director of student services for Central School District 301, said the district doesn't have a specific protocol for teaching students with dyslexia because each case is different.
"Teachers are trained to help pinpoint areas where students are struggling and figure out how to best meet those students' needs," she said. "In school we don't focus on specific labels of things, but we focus on teaching students good strategies they need to be successful."
If students are struggling, the district performs evaluations to see if they qualify for a 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Plan, which sets specific goals for students with disabilities, she said.
However, Shawn got a 504 Plan only after his parents became proactive and got him tested privately, Scott said. "That's when the wheels started turning."
People who suspect they might have dyslexia should get tested and seek help, no matter how scary it may be, the Corks said.
"We have such relief," Scott Cork said. "You hide it for so many years, you don't want anybody to know. It was like skeletons in the closet. Now it's out, and we feel so relieved."
Shawn agreed. "One thing I learned is, you can't fix dyslexia, but you can get tools from other people to help."
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