By Dean Zatkowsky
Before I visited the new Parent Resource Center at the Santa Barbara Unified School District offices, Orfalea Foundation Vice President Catherine Brozowski handed me a documentary called The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia. I found myself profoundly uncomfortable when children in the film talked about how wonderful it was when they came to understand their own learning differences, and how horrible it was that others did not share this understanding. Most of these children had to leave their schools to find a place where they were not teased, mocked, or left uneducated.
I felt uncomfortable because I recognized that, 45 years ago, I was one of the cruel kids mocking the slow readers. Knowing what I know now, I hope that this center will be visited by parents, students, teachers, and everyone who wants to understand other people better.
District Communications Coordinator Barbara Keyani agrees that the name may sell the center short: “It says Parent Resource Center, but it’s really a community resource center.”
The center opened in June of 2013, and boasts an impressive array of books, journals, articles, videos, and computer resources, acquired through the generous donation of materials from the Dyslexia Awareness Resource Center (after founders Joan and Les Esposito retired in 2012), and from Santa Barbara City College and the Special Needs Project.
Cheri Rae, Director of The Dyslexia Project and a driving force behind the new center, explained the impetus for the project: “There are no schools just for kids with learning disabilities in Santa Barbara County, so it makes it even more important to provide resources for teachers and families.” Those resources range from children’s books to how-to manuals to scientific treatises, and the differences covered go far beyond dyslexia, including ADD, OCD, ADHD, Bipolar disorder, Sensory Integration issues, Autism, and more.
A section for teachers includes resources on differentiated instruction strategies. According to Rae, “When teachers learn about dyslexia and other learning differences, it opens a huge range of teaching strategies that have potential to help ALL of their students learn better. And once they have the experience, they can walk into the classroom at the beginning of the year and identify those 1 in 5 kids with learning differences, and change the entire trajectory of their education for the better.”
Rae is also proud of the college section, where she shares her research on which colleges are most appropriate for kids and adults with learning differences.
Awareness of learning differences has been growing steadily as celebrities, business leaders, and athletes share their stories, but the Resource Center hopes to move people beyond awareness to understanding. For example, many people know the word “dyslexia,” but believe it to be a condition that causes people to mix up letters. In fact, dyslexia has to do with how the brain processes stimuli, and many of the world’s most creative thinkers, including Albert Einstein and Walt Disney, were dyslexic.
In the documentary The Big Picture, investing entrepreneur Charles Schwab (Santa Barbara High School class of 1955) speaks of “suffering” from dyslexia, but one might also say he owes his success to dyslexia, because it helps him think differently. Can we think differently about learning “disabilities” and free the talents of 1 in 5 students?
Rae plans showings of The Big Picture throughout the community, along with other outreach initiatives to build awareness about learning differences and what to do about them. She adds, “Parents don’t know what they don’t know; learning about your child’s learning style is an art, and we’re not taught that art. If pediatricians and parents knew what to look for, we could identify learning differences much earlier and help kids a lot more.”
Rae credits the school district for seizing the opportunity to open such a center. “We’re really proud of this, and it’s a really great collaborative action. Dr. Cash and everyone at the district have been great about creating a space for it. It’s really bold for the school district to embrace this and work collaboratively with parents.”
I cannot take back the insults I spat at my fellow students decades ago, but I hope that calling attention to the new Parent Resource Center might help others avoid the mistakes I made. The center is available by appointment by calling (805) 963-4338, and is located in the lower level of the Santa Barbara Unified School District offices at 720 Santa Barbara Street.