NORTHFIELD - The best Valentine's Day gift Michael Maiuro, 9, of Northfield, gave his mother, Kim, was him reading her holiday card.
"He is so severely dyslexic," Kim Maiuro said. "He couldn't read at all before."
Michael was getting help in school, but his teacher recommended he apply for specialized one-on-one tutoring in what is called the Orton-Gillingham method, provided free twice a week through a program sponsored by the Scottish Right Northern Masons at the Northfield Community School.
It took a year for Michael to get a spot, but his reading has improved dramatically.
"For him to be in fourth grade and finally able to read is just phenomenal," Maiuro said.
Michael is pretty thrilled as well, listing all the ways he uses his new reading skills.
"I can read tests by myself now," Michael said. "Before, someone would read to me. And I get 100s on spelling tests. And I can read road signs."
"That's what he does now," his mom said. "He reads everything."
The Masons' Northfield Learning Center, one of five such centers in the state, opened in 2003 offering free tutoring to students, and free training for teachers, in the Orton-Gillingham reading system. Dyslexia is a neurological disorder that makes it difficult to process sounds into letters and words. The Orton-Gillingham method stresses phonics and the linking of sounds to letters, using a multisensory program that includes "tapping" out sounds and a lot of repetition.
The method is effective, but time-consuming, and all five centers have waiting lists, said Ken Larsen, Masonic coordinator for the program in New Jersey. Twenty-five students are being tutored this year at the Northfield center.
"We could use 20 centers," Larsen said. "But we have to raise the money."
He said it costs more than $600,000 a year to run the five centers. One in Newark closed due to lack of support. The mother of a son with dyslexia recently appealed to Gov. Chris Christie for help at a town-hall meeting, saying the Newark school system told her they could not help her son.
Other Masonic Learning Centers are in Burlington, Hasbrouck Heights, Scotch Plains and Tenafly.
Fairleigh Dickinson University's Center for Dyslexia Studies has trained teachers in the Orton-Gillingham method for 20 years and has worked with the Masons for the past 12 years. About 475 teachers have received the training. FDU center Director Mary Farrell said awareness of the method is growing, but since it is still not integrated into regular teaching programs, most teachers know little about it. The center offers training in eight school districts: Jersey City, Wycoff, North Brunswick, Cranford, Irvington, Manalapan, Pompton Lakes and Mahwah.
Barbara McAuliffe, director of the Northfield learning center, said students with dyslexia may not get the specialized help they need in school.
"Most of the students we see are in a special education classroom," she said. "They get support, such as more time on tests or someone to read to them, but they are not actually taught to read."
Farrell said if the state would focus on dyslexia as a targeted reading issue, it could reduce the number of children who need long-term special education services and reduce the number of children put into separate special education classes. An estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of the population has some level of reading disability.
"If more teachers knew this method, we might not have to classify as many struggling readers (as having a disability)," Farrell said. "The classroom teachers would know how to help them."
McAuliffe said students must be evaluated to make sure they get the program best suited to their reading disability. Reading programs such as Wilson are based on the Orton-Gillingham method, and other programs such as Project Read and Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing also can be effective with struggling readers. Some public schools have integrated those programs into their reading curriculum.
Those interviewed supported a law passed last year to form a state Reading Disabilities Task Force to raise awareness of those programs and how they work. They are disappointed the governor has not named people to the task force and that the state Department of Education said it was unnecessary.
"If it wasn't necessary, we wouldn't have waiting lists in all our centers," Larsen said. "The state and schools don't want to recognize dyslexia because then they would have to provide the specialized programs."
William Ziemer, director of operations for the Masonic Learning Centers for Children, said schools often say they cannot afford the intensive one-on-one tutoring or the specialized teacher training. The Masons operate 53 centers in 13 states and estimate it costs about $5,000 per year per student. He said they are working on how to raise awareness and get more training into schools.
"There are fewer resources now, and school districts have to be more selective in how they spend their money," he said. "We are becoming more of a community resource, but we work solely on donations."
Larsen said he would love to locate a center in Atlantic City but has not gotten enough local support. The Masons run golf tournaments, dinners and walkathons to raise money but also try to get support from local businesses and school districts. In Northfield, the school district donates the use of the Community School twice a week for the tutoring sessions. Superintendent Janice Fipp said the district gets far more in return through access to the tutoring for their students and training for the teachers.
"We feel lucky to have them here," Fipp said. "What they have done for children is just marvelous."
Orton Gillingham teacher training takes two years and costs about $8,000. Teachers who sign up to train at a Masonic Learning Center get scholarships to cover the costs and work as supervised tutors with students while they are training. The centers are recruiting teachers for next year.
Carolyn Williams teaches business at Egg Harbor Township High School and got interested in the training because she had a student who could not read. She said she has changed the way she teaches so she can reach all students.
"There was a sophomore, and I didn't know how to help him," she said. "It really bothered me. He's here now (at the center). The one-on-one tutoring makes a big difference."
McAuliffe said she especially tries to recruit high school students because most people have given up on them.
Jaclyn Gray, of the Erma section of Lower Township, struggled with reading all her life but did not start getting tutored at the Northfield Learning Center until high school, when her mother learned about the center. When she started, she said, she was at a fourth-grade spelling level. By the time she graduated high school, she was reading at a high school level.
She now attends Neumann University in Pennsylvania, majoring in political science and education. She uses books on tape to supplement her reading skills and plans to get the Orton-Gillingham training so she can help others.
"I could see a difference within the first couple of months," she said. "It was like learning to read all over again. We just kept going over the sounds and letters, over and over until I understood."
Parents of children in the program call their children's progress phenomenal.
"I can see her becoming more fluid already," Agnes Arsenis, of Northfield, said of her 8-year-old daughter, Stacy, a third-grader.
Stacey Milam travels from Vineland to Northfield twice a week but said it is worth it to see the progress her 9-year-old son, Franklin, a third-grader, has made. She said he was not improving in school with a private tutor. Now, he is almost reading at his grade level.
"I wish we had one of these centers everywhere," she said. "He loves to come because he can see he's getting better. I really was worried before about how he was going to function as he got older."
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