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Dyslexic students at St. Bernadette will have access to STEM program

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Dyslexia can make learning challenging for students, yet many are drawn to STEM fields because of their ability to think three-dimensionally.

“They can solve problems in a different way,” said Krista Gauthier, founder and president of Sliding Doors STEM and Dyslexia Learning Center.

Statistics show one in five students have dyslexia, according to Barbara Dalmut, principal of St. Bernadette School in Springfield. Many more are struggling undiagnosed, according to Dalmut.

That is why she’s bringing the Sliding Doors STEM and Dyslexia Learning Center to her school in January. “A Catholic school is a perfect place to try this program because the parents are so invested in their kids’ education,” said Dalmut. “The kids need to be able to succeed like everyone else.”

Dalmut, a member of the program’s board of directors, learned about the program from its founder Gauthier when they worked together at St. Ambrose School in Annandale.

Gauthier founded the program after seeing her daughter struggle with dyslexia.

“Our main mission at Sliding Doors, even above reading or STEM, is confidence,” said Gauthier. “These are amazingly talented children who, if given the opportunity, will shine and be our future leaders.”

Gauthier said there is a moral responsibility to ensure every student has access to the help they need.

“The reason why we aren’t filling the STEM pipeline is because the very kids who would are getting discouraged at a very young age because of their learning disability,” said Gauthier.

Dalmut became a tutor for Sliding Doors. “I saw the progress in these kids in just a few weeks,” she said. “They gained confidence, were willing to try more things and they learned more by trying more.” Parents at St. Bernadette will have the opportunity to learn about the program Nov. 14.

The program meets for 90 minutes after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Students receive specialized tutoring for 45 minutes and during the other 45 minutes, students explore micro-biology and biology, chemistry, robotics and geology at hands-on STEM stations.

At monthly Science Saturdays, students are paired with an adult mentor who works in a STEM field. They participate in field trips to local museums, science centers and nature centers, work on their long-term projects, or hear from speakers who have dyslexia and are now successful in a STEM field.  

Sliding Doors links students with STEM professionals so they get a sense what they can do, according to Gauthier.

It is difficult to get a diagnosis of dyslexia because it is on the spectrum, according to Gauthier, but Sliding Doors does not require a diagnosis to work with students.

“Parents know their kids and know they’re struggling,” said Gauthier.

In September, students met a mechanical engineer who works at the Naval Sea Systems Command Carderock Division in Bethesda, Md., who struggled with dyslexia as a student. Gauthier said it is a jump for elementary students to consider a time when they could be an engineer, but it was helpful for parents.

“For parents to see the success story gave them hope that their kids will not only be fine but excel,” said Gauthier.

Sliding Doors currently has nine students working out of rented space from Fairfax County Community Use Program at Camelot School in Annandale.

Gauthier said they are recruiting tutors now to keep the student-teacher ratio at 1:1. “Studies show the kids with dyslexia respond much better to a one-on-one situation.”

Students are in the program for two years and tutors will become certified in the teaching method of Sliding Doors at the end of the two years. Tutors do not have to be professional teachers in order to be tutors.

Local colleges are interested in Sliding Doors, including George Mason University in Fairfax whose students are using this for a case study curriculum, and Marymount University in Arlington whose students are tutors.

By bringing the program to St. Bernadette, Dalmut said she hopes to get dyslexia to where it’s so well accepted that people treat it like any other learning disability.

“People think it’s too expensive or difficult so the children just suffer with it,” she said. “We’ve got to get these students help.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017