EASLEY — Andrea Bishop’s son always had a hard time in school. By fourth grade, he couldn’t grasp basic reading exercises, and when his class had recess, he often hid under the slides away from other children.
Her son was diagnosed with dyslexia before he started attending Lakes and Bridges Charter School — an elementary school that just opened in Easley in August specifically for dyslexic students, and where Andrea Bishop is now a teacher.
Lakes and Bridges is the only public school in South Carolina whose students are all dyslexic — the premise of the school is to attract students who either have been diagnosed with dyslexia or have early characteristics of it. Since dyslexia is typically diagnosed at about third grade, younger students at the school are screened for those signs.
Since it’s a public school, the state Legislature had to amend the Charter School Act to allow schools like Lakes and Bridges to specifically serve students with disabilities — other public schools cannot selectively choose their enrollment population.
“Where he was [is] a phenomenal school — they’re probably in the top three in the Upstate — but they weren’t teaching him the way his brain learns,” Andrea Bishop said. “When we came here, the way he learns math, the way he learns reading, science — everything is catered to the way a dyslexic child learns.”
The school uses the Orton-Gillingham approach to instruction — a technique created in the 1930s that breaks down phonics-based learning with multisensory strategies.
It’s the same approach Camperdown Academy — a private dyslexia-focused school in Greenville — uses, and also where Heidi Bishop, principal of Lakes and Bridges, worked for 26 years.
“He’s actually a different child here. He’s happier, he’s more confident — he’s a completely different child at school and at home,” Andrea Bishop said. “Here, he feels successful.”
For Heidi Bishop, the move to Lakes and Bridges was centered on access — other schools that target dyslexic students in the state are private and require tuition. Since Lakes and Bridges is a charter school, it’s public, it’s open to students throughout the state, and it’s free.
“It was important for me to be a part of something that was accessible to everybody, not just a very small percent of the population,” Heidi Bishop said.
Currently, Lakes and Bridges is sharing space with Crosswell Elementary School in the Pickens County School District, but next year it’s moving into its own building on Main Street in Easley, where it will add a grade every year until it reaches eighth grade.
Although they’re limited on space, Heidi Bishop, principal of the school, said they make the most of it. Each student has a chair that can rock back and forth, allowing students to get out energy in an unobtrusive way while they learn. Many of the tabletops are also whiteboards, and the rest can convert from sitting to standing desks.
“Our furniture lets them have the opportunity to move — everything we do is multisensory,” Andrea Bishop said.
Heidi Bishop said the program has already had tremendous success, although they don’t have the results from end-of-year standardized tests yet. One first grade student came to the school unable to differentiate letters from numbers. Now, he’s reading and writing basic words.
Each of the classes has a teacher and an assistant — giving the school an average student-teacher ratio of 10:1. The small class sizes and one-on-one attention are key for their students, who have a harder time completing reading and writing tasks.
The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity estimates about 20% of the population has dyslexia — it’s the most common language-based learning disability. It’s a myth that dyslexic children see and write letters backward — children are considered dyslexic if they have unexpected difficulty reading and learning to write but the intelligence to do so.
“It is most commonly due to a difficulty in phonological processing (the appreciation of the individual sounds of spoken language), which affects the ability of an individual to speak, read, spell and, often, learn a second language,” according to the center.
Heidi Bishop said Lakes and Bridges is not only the first public school in the state that solely targets dyslexic students, but one of only a handful in the country. Along with students from Pickens, Greenville, Spartanburg, and Anderson counties, the school is also seeing families move from across the country to send their children to the school — from North Carolina, Arizona, North Dakota, Ohio, and Massachusetts. So far, Lakes and Bridges has about 40 students on its waitlist.
“Every child deserves this kind of education, not just the child with means,” Heidi Bishop said.