“A teacher educated about dyslexia can be the one person who saves a child and his or her family from years of frustration and anxiety. That teacher can play a pivotal role in changing the whole culture of a school."
~ Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley
This month we return to our series, “The Power of One,” about individuals who have been the one educator to spark change in their sphere of influence. I am excited to feature Alissa Plaisance, director of The Bridge at The Christ School in Orlando, Florida. I know you will be captivated by how Alissa literally started a dyslexia program from square one. She raised awareness of the need for dyslexia-specific instruction in Central Florida schools, arranged OG training when she was unable to find trained tutors in her area, and brilliantly networked with related professionals to create a support network for her then fledgling program. With the greatest of pleasure, I share with you Alissa’s story, illustrating the power of one educator to change the landscape for dyslexic students in her area.
Attending University of Central Florida, Alissa chose an undergraduate and graduate program focused on learning differences. It was there that she was introduced to multi-sensory learning strategies to support students with specific learning disabilities. When the term “dyslexia” was used however, it was usually associated with the deficits and challenges rather than also mentioning that dyslexic students have strength areas resulting from their dyslexia.
As a public school educator, Alissa felt frustrated when she realized that while the limited resources at her disposal were somewhat helpful, her students were falling farther behind classmates due to their teachers being ill-equipped to support students with dyslexia. Alissa felt challenged find a way to help dyslexic students thrive through creating a support network for them which extended to teachers trained in specific techniques known to help dyslexic students thrive.
Moving to a private Christian school, Alissa observed that even there, families of dyslexic students worked tirelessly to patch together a system of tutoring and related therapies for their children, only to discover the results of their best efforts were inadequate. Thinking through the reasons for the lackluster results of such painstakingly crafted intervention systems, Alissa realized that what was missing was the intensity of the intervention. She also realized a better solution had to be created for the dyslexic students at The Christ School.
Alissa took stock of what she had. Deep relationships with both parents of dyslexic students in her school as well as a Head of School who helped to encourage and partner with her to create a culture that allows students with dyslexia to learn in a way that works for them. Alissa used those stakeholders to give shape to her ideas.
During the 2017-218 school year, Alissa gathered parents of students with dyslexia and related learning differences to get input and gauge interest for what could be a better, more intensive way to provide remediation for their children in a loving, caring environment like The Christ School. She and the school administration listened to the parents’ goals and concerns for their children and quickly came to the conclusion that they had an opportunity to fill a gap in Orlando. It was the support and partnership of the administration and eager parents who believed in the model and entrusted their precious children into Alissa’s fledgling program that were key to its success.
The culture of The Christ School rests on some key characteristics, including two that guided the creation of Alissa’s program, called The Bridge. Specifically, “Developing great learners” and “Constantly improving” were two characteristics in the forefront of Alissa and the administrators’ minds as the best way to teach students with dyslexia.
Before launching The Bridge, quite a lot of work was done to create a positive school culture and community awareness centered around understanding dyslexia. Alissa wanted to demystify learning differences and explain myths and misconceptions about dyslexia for those that were unfamiliar. In doing so, Dr. Farrant, Head of School, began sharing the vision with the school board and faculty. A slideshow was presented, which proved to be an eye-opening experience for those who were unfamiliar with the high-incidence and lack of support for students with dyslexia in Central Florida. A networking event for Orlando-area psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists and related professionals for a round-table discussion and meeting was hosted. This event proved to be highly successful in making connections with professionals that were excited about the goals for The Bridge. Many of them later referred dyslexic students to The Christ School after the Bridge was opened.
The Christ School is for students in grades TK - 8. The Bridge currently serves students in grades 1-6. Bridge classrooms are intentionally placed throughout the school, in close proximity to the traditional classrooms. Bridge teachers are part of the grade level teams and also have vertical teaming with their Bridge teammates. This allows them to stay closely aligned with the grade level themes and curricular units but also execute their lessons in the most dyslexic friendly way.
As The Bridge enrollment skyrocketed, Alissa was faced with a common growing pain - a dearth of qualified staff members to fill The Bridge classrooms. Alissa solved the problem by bringing in a Fellow from Atlanta to conduct the arduous Orton-Gillingham training program. Alissa, all the teachers at her school, and members of the community were included in the training, which first occurred about five years ago. The results of hosting Orton-Gillingham, Fellow-led trainings has been an increased pool of potential Bridge teachers as well as an awareness of dyslexia and the Orton-Gillingham approach benefits.
It brings great joy to Alissa to see the data from her students’ three year re-evaluations. To see how far they have come is just incredible. Seeing their confidence soar is fantastic. Seeing them go to any high school- public, private, near and far is fantastic. It is a goal that Bridge graduates have options for high schools with no door being closed to them because of the remediation that has taken place. They have a toolbox of self-advocacy strategies to use while exuding confidence related to their strengths.
Alissa dreams of a future in which The Bridge is built out to full capacity, with a strong outplacement process. She wants The Bridge to be a beacon of highly trained and certified teachers that support generations of students with dyslexia in Orlando. Not limiting her influence to just The Christ School, Alissa has hosted administrators from other schools who want to see The Bridge in action. She and her administrator presented The Bridge’s inner workings at a recent Christian educator’s conference, and hopes to inspire other schools to implement dyslexia centers in their schools.
In December, The Bridge became the 20th school in the country and the only school in Florida to receive program accreditation from the Orton-Gillingham Academy. This accreditation shows Alissa and The Bridge team’s dedication and commitment to the highest standards for instructing students with dyslexia.
The advice Alissa shares with any educator who is considering a project to help dyslexia learners, is to DO IT! She says you will surely be exhausted, but also energized and rewarded! Among her prized possessions are the emails and letters from parents who share their observations on how they see the spark and joy come back to their children soon after they start with at The Bridge.
Thanks to Alissa for so generously sharing her story with us. Are you an educator who has changed your corner of the world for the dyslexic students who live there? If so, please email and tell me about it! And thanks to each of you for the difference you are making for your students with dyslexia.