For Barbara Klepper, her decision to pursue the Dyslexia Certificate Program was both personal and professional. When her son was in the second grade, she realized he was struggling significantly in his reading courses.
“There is something called the second-grade brick wall and he clearly hit it,” she said.
After receiving some pushback from the school in getting her son tested for dyslexia, Klepper went online for help and came across Susan Barton’s Bright Solutions for Dyslexia.
“I knew something was off, so I continued to push and push, and I did research independently on the internet,” she said.
She recognized that many of the signs and symptoms fit her son exactly. After testing, her son was found to have a high IQ and was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia, which is a difficulty in writing.
Inspired by the experiences she had utilizing Bright Solutions for Dyslexia and attending Susan Barton’s seminar to aid and advocate for her son’s education, Klepper established Believe Tutoring LLC. in 2015 to offer tutoring services designed for learners with dyslexia.
Although these materials and programs gave Klepper knowledge on tier-three interventions, it did not provide resources to support students on the full spectrum of dyslexia. It was then she came across the University of Florida’s Dyslexia Certificate Program and realized it could make a significant difference for her.
“I know that the University of Florida is a fantastic school, and I really felt that it was going to provide what I was looking for,” she said.
Today, Klepper is nearly finished with the certificate program. She explained that the experience has provided her with a framework to understand reading, effective methods to employ, and credible resources to reference. This preparation has boosted her confidence to work with students of varying ages with diverse needs.
Moreover, the courses she has taken have empowered her to tackle the pressing needs for change within the school system and to mobilize parents to be a part of the solution.
“It really helped me to solidify the need to spread knowledge within the community about what is going on within our schools,” she said.
Klepper hopes to use what she will learn throughout the program to help other parents recognize the signs and symptoms of dyslexia and to be able to better advocate for their child’s needs in school. It is vital to address these gaps and ensure all students are receiving the support they need to flourish no matter where they fall on the continuum of reading ability.
“Parents need to be a part of the solution and need to understand what goes into developing a skilled reader so that we can move that needle,” she said.
With a clear passion and commitment to championing students with dyslexia, Klepper also intends to apply what she has learned as she offers educational seminars to parents and assessments and intervention services to learners. She recognizes the value her newly acquire knowledge would have had as she started her tutoring business.
“I wish I could have taken this program way back then,” she said.
For Traci Salari, recently named the Whitehurst Lower School language arts specialist at the Bolles School, pursuing her online doctorate in Special Education following the dyslexia track turned out to be serendipitous.
Previously a fifth-grade writing teacher, Salari was seeking a doctoral program that could build upon her experience in reading intervention and master’s degree in reading.
“I was looking for programs that would be user-friendly for a mom and full-time teacher,” she said.
As fate would have it though, in the first semester of the program, Salari’s son was diagnosed with dyslexia. As her doctoral track included the Dyslexia Certificate courses, Salari was able to work with her advisors and restructure her course schedule to complete the certificate first so she would be better equipped to support her son and his educational success.
“They individualized a plan for me so that I could be in the doctoral program but take the dyslexia specialization first,” she said. “It was truly incredible. They allowed me to slow down my pace too so that I could provide intervention for my son, work, take classes and still have time for family.”
For Salari, the program’s faculty, who go above and beyond for their students, are what truly has set the program apart from others.
“It is difficult to find the words to share just how amazing the faculty was during that time period,” she said. “…They first helped me assess my individual needs, understanding that my family needs had shifted, and then tailored my program plan.”
Salari shared that her professors also reviewed her son’s diagnosis, helped her understand his individualized plan and prepared her to be able to ask the right questions. These experiences, combined with the courses, made all the difference for Salari, her son and the students previously in her classroom.
“They put my needs first, and because of these women, I’ve reaped the benefits of the learning as an educator, my son has reaped the benefits as a student, and I’ve still been able to continue as a student,” she said.
Beyond the support of the faculty, Salari shared the courses have truly built upon her background and provided her the research-based practices to support her students, her school and her son.
“It’s helped me foolproof, basically, the intervention that I’m putting in place because I know that what I am implementing are evidence-based practices and rooted in the latest research regarding the science of reading,” she said.
Furthermore, the courses built her capacity to better accommodate students and support their individualized learning needs, as two or three students in each of her previous classes had dyslexia or other learning differences.
“We’re at an exciting time in education right now where brain science, researchers and educators are finally coming together, and we can see the positive effects of this collaboration on our readers in the classroom,” she said. “We as teachers finally have the science at our disposal and are no longer left wondering how science relates into the regular classroom to the people on the frontline.”
Understanding that educators are not always provided the knowledge or tools to create and guide students on the right learning paths, Salari believes this program could make a significant difference for all educators.
“We have a lot of instructional casualties out there,” she said.
Salari hopes to spread the knowledge she gained through the program to not only nurture and advocate for her son and her students, but also to make a greater impact in advancing other parents, fellow teachers and the entire school.
“As I learn research and evidence-based practices, I try to share that along with my colleagues and parents who might need that information, too,” she said.
Having completed the majority of the Dyslexia Certificate courses in the spring, Salari is looking forward to continuing her doctoral program and gaining more invaluable knowledge to apply both personally and professionally.
“Now I am better equipped to be the voice of students, parents, and even my own son. The dyslexia courses have been a timely blessing in my life.”
Maria Ciocca, a speech and language pathologist, pursued the Dyslexia Certificate program to strengthen her therapeutic services and gain a deeper knowledge of dyslexia as its impact spans across several areas of education and intervention.
“About 75 percent of my speech and language caseload has some form of dyslexia,” she said.
As Ciocca nears completion of the program, she has already applied many of the strategies and practices she has learned to her therapy sessions including intervention in phonemic awareness, or the capacity to manipulate the sounds in spoken language, which is a critical foundation for reading words.
“My sessions are more whole because it’s not only targeting their speech and language goals, but it’s also indirectly targeting some of their reading goals,” she said.
Additionally, Ciocca shared the program has empowered her to reflect on how she can assume new roles within her scope of work to better serve students and their families.
“Once I started taking these courses, I felt I could talk to parents on a different level,” she said, “not just on a speech pathologist level, but also as an educator to target more of what their child is needing as it relates to their academics.”
Ciocca believes the Dyslexia Certificate program has transformed the way she views and understands dyslexia. She recommends the program to anyone who wants to work with students with reading challenges and wants to broaden their understanding of dyslexia.
“This program really just gives you so much insight and information,” she said. “Every instructor is just so knowledgeable. …It was very worthwhile.”
Dr. Christopher Beland, assistant principal at Joseph Williams Elementary School, has had the opportunity to pursue the Dyslexia Certificate program as part of the James Patterson Literacy Challenge, a professional development project of the UF Literacy Institute.
The James Patterson Literacy Challenge has taken on a new approach to solving the state’s literacy crisis by building the capacity of administrators and educators from low-performing schools through professional development that enhances their reading instruction, improves their ability to diagnose reading challenges, and provides evidence-based methods to use when interventions are needed.
Approximately 58 percent of students are currently reading below grade level at Beland’s school. Both school leaders and teachers are wholeheartedly dedicated to ensuring the success of all students and share in the hope of cultivating their literacy.
“We all are in the same boat,” he said.
While Beland has been out of the classroom for seven years in an administrative role, he shared it has been wonderful to work hands-on with students once again through his participation in the Dyslexia Certificate.
“Anytime I can work with kids or in some capacity, connect in that manner, I love it,” he said.
Recognizing the challenges of maintaining a work-life balance, Beland shared he believes the program is delivered in a manner that is effective, flexible and conscious of students’ time.
“I think the UF Dyslexia Certificate professors are truly amazing in their expertise of the subject matter and flexibility in accommodating their students,” he said.
The courses have provided Beland with strong foundational skills in literacy and connected him with other educators who are passionate about literacy and dyslexia.
“In doing the courses, you realize how many other people are actually really talented and knowledgeable in this area,” he said.
Additionally, Beland shared it has been a valuable exercise in normalizing discussion around dyslexia and opening the doors to meaningful dialogues between teachers, families and the greater community about how to better serve students with dyslexia.
As he completed the certificate, Beland shared he has developed confidence in seeing the big picture with every individual student and looks forward to sharing what he has learned in the program to uplift teachers and school leaders he encounters.
“It’s just being confident about if I have a kid with a reading difficulty, I can pinpoint the problem and help them,” he said.