A Legacy of Literary and Learning Support Lives On

Guest Correspondence

Pictured: Teachers and students at VMA. Photography by Daniel Perales Studio.

Growing up, Patricia “Patti” Strauss found reading and writing uniquely challenging, yet for most of her life could never pinpoint why. After years of searching for answers with loving encouragement from her husband, Ira Strauss, Patti at last received a diagnosis and could put a name to her learning difference: dyslexia.

Often going undiagnosed for years and sometimes entire generations, dyslexia affects more than 40 million Americans – nearly 15% of the U.S. population– many of whom do not know where to turn for much-needed resources. In their lifetime and beyond, the Strausses wished to positively change this narrative and ensure struggling students of all ages could overcome their individual challenges and read proficiently for their age, just as Patti had been helped.

This vision shared by Ira and Patti lives on today through a charitable fund they established with their estate attorneys and collaborative planning with our Community Foundation. Designed to provide a continuum of services for children, families and teachers, the Strauss Literacy Initiative is reimagining opportunities for struggling readers in three key ways: 1. identifying those with learning differences; 2. supporting literacy interventions from early reading supports through post-secondary services; and 3. professional development for teachers to equip them with intervention strategies that help identify, predict and adjust for dyslexia and other learning challenges. And after years of research and community engagement, the initiative’s early efforts at three local organizations are already uncovering meaningful results.

What began with a distribution of backpacks, books, and puzzles during the winter holidays at Visible Men Academy (VMA) has transformed into a deep dive of evidenced-based instruction that’s individualized, multisensory and inclusive to all students. This included screen-reader tests for young learners and professional development training for teachers and school staff, which bolstered their awareness about literary challenges. (Early experiences from VMA students and teachers are encouraging.) The culmination of these opportunities? By the end of the school year this past May, VMA had screened all Kindergarteners and recommended three out of eleven students – 27% of the kindergarten class – for additional services that will ultimately help improve their reading proficiency and comprehension.

In recent months, the initiative’s reach has expanded beyond its inaugural partnership with VMA, encompassing an equally diverse breadth of geographies and generations.

Take for example St. Mary Academy – a K-8 school serving Sarasota, Bradenton, and Venice – where students with dyslexia will be able to access scholarships to attend and succeed in an educational environment conducive to their needs. Understanding teachers are essential in stewarding this inclusive environment, our foundation is supporting intensive teach participation in Orton-Gillingham training, a direct and multisensory way to teach literacy for struggling readers.

At the other end of the age spectrum, State College of Florida is strengthening its Disability Resource Center to identify, evaluate and accommodate older adult students with learning challenges. This is a game changer, as students at the post-secondary level often are at a stage in their lives when supports are traditionally no longer provided.

There is much still to explore and address through the Strauss Literacy Initiative. Even at this early stage, though, we know that what we learn locally has the potential to inspire conversations and solutions far beyond our region, into national conversations about dyslexia and other learning differences.

To think that all this positive momentum for today’s learners began with one woman who lived most of her life unaware of a dyslexia diagnosis and the potential for her own circumstances to change is bittersweet, but also inspiring. Thanks to Patti’s tenacity and vision along with her supportive husband, the next generation now has supports to experience a very different learning environment, created by a legacy of empowerment that will live on through students of all ages and abilities.

Roxie Jerde is President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

Pictured: Teachers and students at VMA. Photography by Daniel Perales Studio.

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