Published on September 20, 2019 | | Written by Annalise Knudson
New Bridge Prep: A multi-sensory approach to teaching dyslexic students
Posted Sep 17, 2019
Bridge Prep opens for students with dyslexia
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Staten Island students with dyslexia and language-based learning disabilities were welcomed as “Bridge Builders” when they entered the new Bridge Preparatory Charter School this month.
The new charter opened its doors for the first time on Sept. 5, becoming the first and only public charter school in New York State dedicated to serving students with dyslexia and language-based learning disabilities.
Temporarily located on the grounds of the Michael J. Petrides Education Complex in Sunnyside, the school admitted 79 first- and second-grade students during its first academic year, with an additional grade to be added each year up to fifth grade.
Dyslexia affects the ability to read, write and process letters, words and numbers, in a way and speed that others take for granted. Children who are diagnosed with dyslexia are usually given the broader tag of “learning disabled” on their Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs).
About 65% to 70% of students in Bridge Prep have an IEP, according to Timothy Castanza, principal and a founder of the charter school.
“Of the students with IEPs, not all of them will show dyslexia or a language-based learning disability, because dyslexia doesn’t appear on a lot of IEPs,” Castanza said. “But we see a ton of our students coming in with speech and language impairments, ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder), or just a learning disability.”
While built and created for children with dyslexia and other language-based disabilities, the charter school also admits students who are struggling readers and English Language Learners, who would also benefit from the school’s approach to learning.
That structured, research-based and multi-sensory approach to learning is known as Orton-Gillingham.
“For kids with dyslexia or language-based learning disabilities, it’s the must-do approach,” said Castanza. “It’s just good phonics. It’s phonetic awareness because students with dyslexia and language-based learning disabilities — they thrive with structure, this structure-based approach.”
Teachers at Bridge Prep received training in Orton-Gillingham, and will have coaches from the organization observe and debrief teachers during the school year on improvements and recommendations. While Orton-Gillingham is primarily intended for literacy, Castanza said the approach is being used in every other content area at his school.
In addition to its academic mission, Castanza said it’s just as important that students have dedicated time for social-emotional learning and arts-based programming, which both provide support to students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities. The school’s designated social worker sits with students each day for a lesson in social-emotional learning, in the hopes that students will eventually become advocates and leaders in the community and feel comfortable with who they are, he said.
“We incorporate a period in their class day every day for our social worker to go in and teach social-emotional learning skills,” he said. “We did a multiple-prong approach to social emotional learning, so like a lot of Department of Education (DOE) schools, we use the Sanford Harmony program. That teaches kids to be empathetic, good listeners, and really focuses on who they are as people.”
A language support specialist works with teachers in classrooms to support students who have speech and language impairments. Counseling services and occupational, physical and speech therapy services are offered through the Department of Education.
Students also have a different arts-based enrichment program each day at school –including art, dance, chorus and instrumentals — by partnering with performing arts company Sundog Theatre.
Bridge Prep has also joined a program through the Department of Education called the District Charter Collaborative, which is a two-year partnership between a charter school and two DOE schools in the district. Partnering with PS 26 in Travis and PS 11 in Dongan Hills, the three schools will meet during the year, receive shared professional development, conduct visitations in schools and learn best practices focused around literacy across all subjects.
The best part of the day, Castanza said, is seeing children leave Bridge Prep with a smile on their face.
“These are kids who don’t traditionally love school and we’re spending a lot of time making sure they like it here, that they know this is a place they can come and be safe, be themselves,” he said. “When I hear them tell me they love school and see them smiling and when I hear them asking, ‘When will more kids get to come to this school?’ For me, even if we’re doing it all wrong, something’s going right, and we’re going to build on that.”
Castanza said Bridge Prep will max out of its current space at Petrides in its third year. It will soon begin communicating with the DOE to find a permanent location for the charter school.