Better World

Beyond the alphabet: Advocacy for dyslexic learners — Power to the Parents, Ep. 3

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This episode of Power to the Parents explores the challenges and experiences of a parent advocating for her dyslexic children in the public school system. The discussion highlights the struggles faced by students with dyslexia, the importance of early intervention and support, and the impact of school environments on a child’s self-esteem and academic progress. This conversation also touches on the difficulties faced by parents in navigating the education system and the need for systemic change to ensure all children have access to appropriate educational resources and support.

Naomi Peña shares her journey of opening the South Bronx Literacy Academy, a New York City public school that supports students struggling with reading. She discusses the training of teachers and the remarkable outcomes they have achieved. Naomi also emphasizes the need to expand the vision and open schools in every borough of New York City and beyond. She addresses the guilt parents may feel when their children struggle with reading and offers advice on setting expectations and persisting in finding solutions. Naomi highlights the importance of teacher training and the efforts of the Literacy Academy Collective to improve literacy education.

Takeaways from Episode 3

  • Early intervention and support are crucial for children with dyslexia to develop reading proficiency and prevent academic struggles.
  • The public school system often lacks the resources and specialized programs needed to effectively support students with dyslexia.
  • Parents of children with dyslexia often face significant challenges in advocating for their children’s needs and finding appropriate educational settings.
  • Creating systemic change is necessary to ensure that all children, regardless of their learning differences, have access to quality education and support. Opening a school specifically for students struggling with reading can have remarkable outcomes.
  • Parents should not blame themselves for their children’s reading difficulties and should focus on finding solutions.
  • Setting expectations for children while understanding their individual paths is crucial.
  • Never accept ‘no’ for an answer when advocating for your child’s education.
  • Teacher training is essential for improving literacy education and should be prioritized.

Transcript of Episode 3: Beyond the Alphabet: Advocacy for Dyslexic Learners

Ailen Arreaza, host: Hello and welcome. This is the Power to the Parents podcast. I’m Ailen Arreaza, the Executive Director at ParentsTogether and your host. And I am so excited to have Naomi Peña with us today. Naomi is an amazing mom who has been advocating for her kids in New York, specifically around helping them to read proficiently. So reading is something that is so essential for learning, for moving ahead in school. And we have a reading crisis in our country. And so Naomi, I’m thrilled to talk to you today. Tell me a little bit about yourself, your family, how many kids you have, what’s going on with you?

Naomi Peña: Thank you for having me, Ailen. I’m so excited to be here. I am a born and raised New Yorker, particularly from the Lower East Side, and I have four kids. But they’re all, at this point, young adults and teens. My oldest is 23, and my youngest are 14-year-old twins. So I’ve been in this parenting space for two decades, over two decades, and I’ve learned a lot.

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah. Yes, and specifically around reading and supporting your kids with reading, but I wanna get into all of that, but first I just wanna ask you just about your general approach to reading with your kids. When you first brought your firstborn home from the hospital and sort of like when he was little, how did you approach reading with him?

Naomi Peña: Well, I did everything that I was told that I should do. I should, you know, get as many children’s books as possible. I should read to him. And that was fine with me. I like to read. So I got into these, at the time, there was like these book clubs that you can subscribe to and they would send you like a monthly set. And we had like Dr. Seuss through the nose. I think I had the whole series. Um, so I did that stuff because I was like, that’s what’s expected and I will do that.

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah. And did your kid like being read to? What were some of his favorite books?

Naomi Peña: Yeah, yeah, he totally did. I mean, Dr. Seuss definitely was fun for him because it rhymed and the stories were interesting and the illustrations were cool. But he definitely liked books that had a good story to it, for sure.

On discovering her child was struggling with reading…

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah. Okay, so as your child started getting older and started school, tell me a little bit about what happened with his reading.

Naomi Peña: Um, it started in first grade and I started getting complaints from the teachers, how he was struggling, basically not being able to pay attention, really kind of when it came to the reading, he was doing something else. So it’s like being distracted, playing around, like always something else. And as a result, there were consequences when it came to that, because if you’re misbehaving in school, then I have to address it at home. And so, it’s kind of, it’s spilled over into our home life. And then after, and it was really contentious. I mean, it was hard.

And there was a moment that is forever burned in my memory bank with him. That I remember sitting at the dinner table with him and just saying, I know you don’t like getting in trouble, no kid does. And I know you don’t like getting me upset. And I know you don’t like being punished. And I know you don’t like getting in trouble at school. What is the deal? What is going on? And that’s when he told me, he was like, Mom, I don’t know what it is. It’s like my brain won’t let me. And that was like a major punch in the gut to me because I realized this is not a kid who’s quote unquote trying to be bad. This is a kid who is really trying and it’s not working. By then there was also conversations I needed to evaluate him. So I went ahead and started that.

“I know you don’t like getting in trouble at school. What is the deal? What is going on? And that’s when he told me, he was like, Mom, I don’t know what it is. It’s like my brain won’t let me.”

Ailen Arreaza: Right. Well, can I just say like, kudos to you for asking him and just like acknowledging, like you don’t, because you’re right, no kid wants to get in trouble. No kid is trying to be bad on purpose. And even though we’re frustrated and it feels that way, it’s like, it takes a lot of self control as a parent and self-awareness to just realize something else is going on here.

How did you, so you said it was like a punch in the gut when he said that to you. What else did you feel hearing that? Like, did you have any other internal, like were you questioning things about your own parenting?

Naomi Peña: Absolutely, like that I immediately felt horrible. I immediately felt bad, because I was being hard on him. I had expectations of him. You are expected to go to school, you are expected to do well. And that is where I started really taking inventory of what my expectations are, and what the school’s expectations are, but really looking at how it’s actually being translated in my child. And that’s where I started to realize that there has to be something more here. As you said, like I said, no child wants to be in trouble. And honestly, like hindsight, right, 2020, when a child is expressing behaviors, it’s…they’re signaling to the adults in their life that there’s something wrong. They don’t have the vocabulary to tell you, actually, I’m having a hard time with reading, so can we triage this? Like they don’t have that insight. It’s on us to kind of dissect things out.

On getting evaluated but not finding support…

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah, yeah, it’s on us and it’s also on their teachers, their school, and they were flagging it for you. So you said that they suggested that he be evaluated. And so what did you learn from that evaluation?

Naomi Peña: It discovered that he struggled to read. Um, and at the time I kind of got lucky. They didn’t put it down on paper, but when they, we were reviewing kind of the results at his IEP meeting, the staff said, well, these are markers of someone who is dyslexic. And at the time had no idea what that meant. I was, you know, I think kind of the overarching idea is that that’s someone who reverses letters. So I just did what, you know, what I could do, which was get online and start researching, discovered that there was an approach and that’s where my advocacy started.

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah, so you went to Dr. Google, which is like a parent’s best friend. And you found this approach. And I’m assuming that you were excited, and you took it to the school.

Naomi Peña: I did. By then I had an IEP. And for those who don’t know, IEP is an individual education plan. And that is something where it’s a legal document highlighting what the needs of the child, what the child is for their educational career and the accommodations that they can provide. And I came across that an Orton-Gillingham based, you know, reading based approach is really optimal for students who have dyslexia. So I was like, you know, there was tons, I got tutoring lists, but you know, at the time, I was a young mom and I was starting my career and I didn’t have the resources kind of available to me always. So I went to his school and let them know, listen, like this is what’s going on here. I got the thing, so let’s get that reading program up and queued up for him so he can be on his way. And that’s when I was told that no public school in New York City has an Orton-Gillingham based reading approach and no teacher is trained in that approach. Cause both of them are massively expensive, but I was told just do what we’re recommending and it will get better.

Ailen Arreaza: Did he?

“He was made fun of when he was asked to read out loud. He then started having severe panic attacks about going to school.”

Naomi Peña: No, not at all. It actually got worse, significantly worse. That is where his mental health started to really affect him because as he got older, it was glaring that there was an issue. He was made fun of when he was asked to read out loud. He then started having severe panic attacks about going to school.

You know, at some point, like in the third grade, he was bedwetting, just of sheer anxiety. I had him in therapy, it was a lot. And I think it, I know it compounded the feelings. There was one particular year that he had a teacher who was god awful to him. Like there’s no other way to say it. They were really god awful to him. And you know, thankfully there was a co-teacher in the classroom, so she really became supportive, but that experience actually really scarred him moving forward of how he viewed his teachers, how he viewed school. So it was definitely not a positive experience for him, unfortunately.

Ailen Arreaza: Oh, that is so heartbreaking. The school should be a place where kids are supported and understood and they are thriving. And it’s so hard to hear that he had such a hard experience.

Naomi Peña: Eventually what ended up happening is we, middle school and high school really, like it kind of bottomed out by then. He actually ended up going to what we call here in New York City, a District 79 high school where these are more transitional high schools for students who just either want to get their GED or are doing a combo of like school and career path type of things or, you know, educational training certificates, that way so they can just be done with it and move on. So he ended up just getting his GED during the pandemic. And unfortunately, he has, you know, he has no interest really in higher education at this point of his life. His argument is like, why would I want to subject myself to a higher education system where my experience leading up to that point wasn’t exceptional or fruitful.

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah. That’s, I mean, so you had the experience of really seeing how starting in first grade, not like having this intervention, the ripple effects of that. But then you have three more kids. So tell me about your experience with your little ones, which has been totally different.

On learning about the science of reading…

Naomi Peña: So, absolutely, by the time I had Jonah, I had learned a lot. So by the time when Elijah came around, who was my second kid, I really quickly realized by kindergarten that there was an issue. Same for my twins. By kindergarten, I knew that there was an issue. What I discovered is that how I got the supports for them really depended on the teacher and the school.

In one of the cases, I had teachers that were all in, who were like, there’s an issue here, yes, I support you. But by the time it came to getting my child evaluated, the staff really wasn’t supportive. At one point I was told that I needed to calm down, which you tell anyone to calm down, you do the complete polar opposite. I think the most disheartening piece for me was when I was told that was perfectly fine if my child didn’t learn how to read past the third grade, that he will just eventually learn, which in New York State, third grade is a testing year for state exams. And I’m raising children of color. So these are two things that I know are absolute. But when you are given that sort of information as like, don’t stress out about it, I think really fueled my anger on how we support students like them.

So when my twins got into kindergarten, same deal, I knew what was going on. So by now, I knew I had four children who were dyslexic. I had all started the process and got confirmations that all four are dyslexic and what people don’t understand or know is that if you have one child that has dyslexia, you have an over 75% chance of your second child being dyslexic, because there is a genetic component to this. This is neurological. And it’s not something that goes away. It’s not something that like, you know, give them reading skills and they just do well. You learn skills to cope and manage. It’s like a health condition, right? You have high blood pressure, you have a lifestyle change, you have medicines, you learn to cope. If you do it well, it does go away. But for something that’s neurological in condition, it’s just learning how to use the skills that you have been taught with literacy to do better.

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah, yeah, it’s so interesting to hear you describe it as a medical condition, which is what it is. And your example about high blood pressure is a really good one because my understanding is that these tools and skills that support kids with dyslexia support all kids in the same way that like eating healthy is good for everybody, whether you have high blood pressure or not. And so tell me a little bit about what you’ve learned about these methods of teaching kids to read that are designed for kids with dyslexia, but how do they apply to others?

Naomi Peña: So what I, again, because this is, the way I learned this process is literally by just like diving in and reading materials and reading articles and reading the research. And all these Orton-Gillingham based approaches use something called, it’s based out of a body of work called the science of reading. And this is a body of work that has been developed over several decades. And it’s really based, rooted in science.

So there have been MRI brain scans, there has been studies done, and they’ve been able to really look at the brain and see where are the regions in the brain that need to be activated, what parts of the brain do what for language and based off of that, they have sort of outlined what are the best practices. And what science of reading does is really just center, not just phonics, because I think this is my biggest pet peeve is like, oh, this is about phonics? It’s about phonics and…it’s about phonics and decoding, it’s about phonics and verbal reasoning, it’s and.

And unfortunately, an approach that we’ve had in this country for a long time, and honestly, globally, is this approach called balanced literacy, where they did comprehension really well, like, you know, reading comprehension and background knowledge really well, but the phonics piece, the decoding piece was something that wasn’t done as part of the curriculum holistically.

So what these curriculums, you know, these curriculums that are based on these approaches, it teaches children like the rules of the language, you know. They don’t understand that the English language is really hard, you know. I’m not a native English speaker. And like the fact that P-H makes an F sound is crazy to me. You know, yeah.

Ailen Arreaza: Right. And then the vowels make two different kinds of sounds. All yes.

Naomi Peña: And all the rules, like that, you know, I before E, except after C, like, or sound it this way, like it’s always something. So.

Ailen Arreaza: And every rule has an exception. Constantly.

Naomi Peña: Every one, right? Right. So it’s teaching children those rules. So when they are presented with a word that besides the basic skills that they’ve been taught about, you know, sounding it out, if they encounter the word that is a PH word, they go, Oh, I know that’s an F sound. So that’s what it’s based on.

Ailen Arreaza: Right. Yeah. And it’s been proven to help all kids improve reading.

Naomi Peña: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s 95% of all readers can read this way.

On the arduous process of advocating for kids with dyslexia…

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah. And unfortunately, when your little ones were, when you discovered that they were also dyslexic, were there any public schools in New York using these programs yet?

Naomi Peña: No, no, not one.

Ailen Arreaza: So what did you do?

Naomi Peña: I did what I could do, which was really, you know, get them the supports that I needed in the classroom. What the dynamic that has happened in my house is that my oldest and my youngest, one of the twins, they are the most severely dyslexic where my second son and my son’s twin daughter, you know, my twin daughter, one of the twins, they’re actually on the milder side of things.

Ailen Arreaza: Mm-hmm.

Naomi Peña: So, but by my second kid, I knew that there was these other offerings, these options that I can look into. So I knew there was a private school that actually had a free reading intervention program and you go twice a week for an hour. So I took advantage of that for all three. And because my second kid and my daughter were on the milder end, like they flew. They just needed that really targeted support to learn how to dissect those words. And like, my daughter will devour any book you give her, like she loves it. Now it didn’t it didn’t translate as, as transforming for my youngest son. So I knew he needed more. And that’s, that’s where my crossroads with public school started, because acknowledging that, I think, was really hard for me.

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah, yeah, can you say a little bit more about that? Did you go to public school growing up?

Naomi Peña: I actually did not go to public school. I went to parochial school growing up in a city in the 80s. But by the time my children were, I knew from the very onset that I, you know, when I was going, it was affordable to go to parochial school. By the time my kids started going, I didn’t see a need to leave the public school system.

And I started getting involved by then. I started, you know, being on the PTA or the PA. I started, you know, being on the school governance teams of the school. And then I actually got involved locally. So I sat on my local school board in New York City. We call them slightly different, but I was on my local school board. I literally wrapped up my final eighth year term this past June. And I was president for five of those years. So I was all in, like I will continue to die on a sword for public school education because I fundamentally believe that every child has a right to a good education, to go to their local school and do well. 

So when I saw how bad my son was struggling, honestly, it kind of hit me during the pandemic when I had literally like a front row view of what it was like for him to sit in the classroom. I had a moment realizing I needed to, it was all kind of like my life was in front of me because I had my son in the living room preparing for his GED and I had my son sitting next to me not being able to write or decode a single word on the screen. And he was in fifth, fourth grade by then, the beginning of the year, the third grade. So I knew like if I didn’t intervene and do something, I was going to have a repeat of what was happening in the living room. I needed to save him.

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah. That must have been a really difficult moment. Did you, what did you feel right then?

“It felt like a breakup. Honestly, it did. I felt hurt. I felt really pained that I needed to leave the community, that I needed to leave his school district. It really bothered me that I had to do this because I shouldn’t have to.”

Naomi Peña: It felt like a breakup. Honestly, it did. I felt hurt. I felt really pained that I needed to leave the community, that I needed to leave his school district. It really bothered me that I had to do this because I shouldn’t have to now. And the only option that exists at the time was I needed to then hire an attorney. I needed to get an expensive, or redo an expensive evaluation, which start between $5,000 and $10,000. And then I needed to advocate to the school district that he needed a different school setting, and if they did not agree with me, I then needed to file a lawsuit to then get him placed into a private school. All while I am now looking at private schools and applying and submitting application fees. So this was a major money commitment piece that I knew was coming. And I knew that the tuitions in these schools were not cheap. I mean, the school he ends up going to is $80,000 a year.

Ailen Arreaza: Wow.

Naomi Peña: So I knew that I was leaving kind of a cushy environment that I really am adherent, like I said, I will die on a sword for a public school education, but then I realized that it wasn’t working for my son. And if I left him, I was gonna lose him. But I needed to save him.

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah, that is such a difficult decision that so many parents are faced with, this sort of like, I need to do right by my kid, even if I feel very strongly about a system that I believe in and what I believe should be right and available to all kids. And you’re not, I mean, this is a story that I’ve heard over and over and over again from so many parents. And ultimately we have to do what we have to do to keep our kids safe and to make sure that they thrive. So I hear that and I still, I know how difficult that decision is for so many parents. So tell me about the process of the lawyer, the private school, all of it.

Naomi Peña: Oh, geez. So I spent at least six months looking at schools. At the time, it was in the height of the pandemic. So there was lots of virtual tours, which was fine. That helped me kind of decide which was part of my list. But then I was at the same time waiting for a neuropsychological evaluation that is part of the application. So once we completed that, I had two, three offers in total, but one of them is the one that I knew he needed to go to, and that actually…the school was like, you know, they were happy to take him there, right then and there, but I couldn’t do that because there’s a process that you need to go into before you do that, you need to be able to notify the school district, have them do a new IEP, like it’s all very long and that in itself took another six months.

So by the time we were done, it was already June and the whole school year had gone by. But what we ended up doing is the minute the school district refused to place him, acknowledge that he needed an alternative setting…I then, my attorney then filed a lawsuit that, by the way, needs to be done every single year until he graduates. It’s not something that happens automatic. So I love my attorney and I’m glad for that because otherwise I’m with her for the next, until he graduates in 12th grade. So she has to file a lawsuit every single year, letting them know that we are intending to place him into a non-public school.

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah.

Naomi Peña: And then the legal system picks up from there, and that is very slow, very tedious. So for an example, the lawsuit that I filed the first time two years ago, I literally just got a judgment decision from the judge acknowledging that he needed a private school setting in January of this year.

Ailen Arreaza: Wow. Okay.

Naomi Peña: So it’s a two year delay system.

Ailen Arreaza: Okay, but you didn’t wait two years. He’s out, you were able to get him to start the school. He’s in the school, right?

On the transformation once her child got support…

Naomi Peña: Yeah, he started, so he went to school in fifth grade at the school. And what I then was told is that the reason my kid was struggling to decode or to even read in general, I mean, my son could not read a restaurant menu. I mean, this was really life altering for him. 

Ailen Arreaza: Yeah, absolutely.

Naomi Peña: He couldn’t text, like I had to get him an Alexa so he can text his friends like on Xbox, Alexa, how do you spell this? Coping, that’s all I can help him to do. They told me he was reading on a first grade reading level. So it was pretty transformative.

I think the piece that ended up working really well for him is that he finally was in a school setting where he wasn’t being made fun of anymore because every kid there had something, you know, some kids had ADHD, some kids struggled to read just like him. So he didn’t feel otherized. He didn’t feel singled out. And no one was like picking on him. No one was pulling him out for special services because everything is baked into the school model. And he was in a classroom reading group with other kids who are just at his level too. So he didn’t feel, for once he actually felt really in a place of support.

Ailen Arreaza: And how did that sort of show up in his day-to-day life and then sort of how he interacted with you and what did that look like in real life?

“He was really reluctant the first couple of weeks and then slowly but surely he started showing up and he started feeling a little bit more confident, started standing a little bit taller.”

Naomi Peña: His demeanor immediately started to change. Like, it was interesting. It was like a slow, you know how when you go to the museum and they’re talking about the evolution of humans, how like we’re like hunchback and as you start, as it’s evolved, you start standing up taller. And that’s exactly the way it was with him. He was really reluctant the first couple of weeks and then slowly but surely he started showing up and he started feeling a little bit more confident, started standing a little bit taller and hearing that his own teachers have things too.

They had a kind of like a round robin moment in the classroom early on, just level setting of where everyone was. And he was like, Mom, even my teachers aren’t perfect, like they have something too. And that, I think, to him meant a lot. Cause again, he didn’t feel different. And over the months and now years, like, is he reading at level? No, because my kid is walking in at least five years behind. Um, but can he decode? Yes. You know, can he text me now? Absolutely. Can he read subtitles for shows? And he can like order food from a menu. And that’s literally what the work looks like when you give these skills in the classroom and they translate to real life.

On starting a new kind of public school…

Ailen Arreaza: That’s fantastic. And the thing that you said about just feeling seen and that level of representation, that’s also, that makes such a difference, right, for a kid that age. But you didn’t stop there. Because, I mean, when you tell me this story, I think about, okay, so you are clearly a powerhouse. You have had this experience with your older son, and you are driven and you have the resources and you know how to do your research. And it still took you years to kind of get your kid in a position where he needed to be.

So I think about the parent who just immigrated from a different country or the parent who themselves does not have the knowledge or isn’t able to read as well or know how to navigate the system. What do they do and what happens to their kids? And so I know that you’ve continued to advocate for this. And I imagine that you’ve been thinking about those families as well.

Naomi Peña: Yeah, that’s actually one of the reasons why I continued to do this work because another thing that I didn’t mention is that my kid’s father is also severely dyslexic, but he was undiagnosed. I think there’s a generation of, there’s a lot of adults walking around just being told that they were bad or lazy or didn’t care about their education.

And kids do what they do really well. They deflect and avoid. So, and it wasn’t until we got to this point with my youngest son where I said listen, I’m gonna have to pull him out of public school. I’m gonna have to put him in private school. And that was really the first time that he acknowledged, where he was like, well, as long as he doesn’t have the experiences I had in public school and he can read, that’s what I want. But what ended up happening is at the same time that I am…a couple of years before I started dealing with the process, the legal process of getting my child into the school that he’s in now, New York City had a competition called Imagine Schools. And basically it was like an all call for new school ideas and they had funding from a couple of people, a couple of organizations, just to help with the school planning process.

And a group of moms had this concept of creating the first public school to support struggling readers. Now there was a team assembled and they approached me. And they said, listen, I know you’re in this space because of your personal experience. At the time I was sitting on the school board. And they said, you know, we will love your support. I was like, yeah, go with God, absolutely. And they were like, well, we will also love for you to be part of this team. And I was like, uh, I don’t think so. And that, and not because like, I didn’t think it was a great idea. I thought it was a wonderful idea.

I just had really specific, like really targeted specific asks. Like, you know, I didn’t want the school to be another environment where more people with access can get into the school. Like if we’re gonna do a public school, it should be truly a public school where everyone can have access to. Now, what that looked like, I don’t know. I don’t, you know, I didn’t design schools, but you know, I was thinking to Naomi, you know, 20 plus years ago when I became a first time mom, I didn’t know the system, you know, I didn’t have the resources. I was just starting out with my career. Like everything was finite for me and every dollar mattered. And I knew I didn’t wanna create, be part of a team that would do that. And not that I’m saying that they would, but these were all things that they were actually grappling with and discussing.

And at the time, when they finally approached me, it was during the pandemic and I was dealing with my own kids at home, remote learning. And I was also really involved in the community about initiatives, making sure that families got food and like, so there was a lot going on. I said, listen, I’m happy to be supportive. You need me to sign a document? Absolutely. But being part of this team, like I know my, how much I can give and that that’s not there yet. Which they respected.

They were like, well, we’ll just keep you updated. I was like, yeah, do that. And then one of the women on the team, I knew her because she also sat on the adjacent school board, you know, next to my district. So I knew she had taken her son to a private school. So I had reached out to her when I was considering this for my own son. So she, God sent, was like sitting with me, explaining how the process worked, put me in contact with people who put me in contact with attorneys. Like it was just like a nice supportive system, but even with the support of this woman and putting me in contact with other people, it was really so time consuming.

And by the time I was done, I had hours and hours and hours invested in this process. Thousands of dollars, thousands thrown at it. Hours and hours of like conversations with people that led me to other things. And it was like a lot of networking. So when I was done, she then kind of like looked at me and was like, well. And I was just like venting about how horrible this process was. And she was like, well, you can change it. And I was like, mmmm, okay, I see where we’re going here. And I was like, all right, let me dip my toes into this space. I have some, like I now feel relieved of where my son is gonna go. So I can now transition into this project. 

So, you know, I thought I was just gonna be there to support ideas. You know, I was also really heavily connected with people that they needed to meet. So I was able to facilitate a lot of meetings. And as each meeting went by, each week went by, each conversation happened, I was like, okay, we need to do this. We need to open this school up.

“It took four years and two different administrations, but we were able to successfully open the first New York City public school that is specifically supporting students who struggle with their reading.”

It took four years and two different administrations, but we were able to successfully open the first New York City public school that is specifically supporting students who struggle with their reading. So we opened South Bronx Literacy Academy this September to 67 kids and their families. All of our kids are two to three years behind. It is a mixed bag of who’s showing up. Like we have some IEP kids, the vast majority are not. They are just general ed students who struggled with reading.

We trained about 14 teachers. But by then we had developed a training model for two years in advance, years ago. So last year we trained like 20 teachers. And the outcomes have been pretty remarkable and we’re only in December. So kind of the testimonials coming out of families are like, thank God I found this school and my kid is not school refusing, my kid is starting to decode, they can read, they’re not angry. I have one mom who said that the therapist is asking what we’re doing at the school because it’s a different boy, it’s a different boy. He was so angry that he couldn’t read. He was so angry. But he’s doing amazing. 

So the vision, so we actually formed a nonprofit because we were like, all right, like we can’t stop at one school. So I say, you know, the vision of the organization as Literacy Academy Collective, we wanna open up a school in every borough in New York City. But honestly, like I’ve always said, I’m thinking big, we’re going for world domination. So every time I’ve done these interviews, one time I did an interview and I got a teacher who DM’d me from Ireland and was like, we don’t teach kids how to read either. So this is a global issue.

On what she would tell other parents whose kids are struggling…

Ailen Arreaza: It’s a global issue. I got chills hearing the stories of how well it’s going for the families at this new school. And it just makes me think about, you know, as a mom, this thing, this mom guilt that we all feel when we see that our kids are not thriving and they’re not doing well, and we just feel like it’s our fault. And our kids, it sounds like, are feeling like it’s their fault, like they’re stupid, like they can’t. And just to wrap up, what would you say to somebody who’s feeling like that right now? Like this is on them.

Naomi Peña: Right, I will say that those feelings are absolutely real. I mean, I still carry guilt about not being able to help my first son. And we’ve had a conversation around that because he actually was like, why couldn’t you bring me to a school like you did for Lucas? And kind of having that conversation of like, I didn’t know, like I didn’t know this was an option that I had. And I don’t know if I would have been able to do it, all these phone calls, all this money. Like it was not something that, you know, it still pains me. I know his trajectory would be different if he had that as an option. But the one thing that I can’t, I can’t fault myself for that because you’re not born with this. 

Ailen Arreaza: It’s not your fault.

“Once you know there’s something wrong, don’t ever, ever let people tell you no. Because what I found was many people were trying to tell me to calm down or don’t worry about it.”

Naomi Peña: You’re right. A kid, when your kid is born, they don’t go, here’s the handbook. I mean, ideally that would be amazing. You know, as a mom that’s raising four kids, every single one of them is so vastly different from the other. Like you can’t have, and I’ve learned this as well, like raising young adults and teenagers. Like you have to set the expectation, but there’s a level of understanding that you need to have that they will set their own path. That’s hard because as parents, we wanna dictate that, but you can’t.

But my one advice is you need to, once you know there’s something wrong, don’t ever, ever let people tell you no. Because what I found was many people were trying to tell me to calm down or don’t worry about it. But then at the end of the day, when your kid is not doing, you know, doing well, they will still blame you because that’s what they were doing to me. You’re not reading enough. Are you reading enough to your kid? Do you have enough books? Or the coded language of, is there anything going on at home? And ultimately it wasn’t any of that. He needed something different. So I would say never give no for an answer and be persistent, even if it means agitating, because that’s the only way you get it done.

Ailen Arreaza: Okay, Naomi, tell us about the name of your organization. How do we find out more about it? Where do we get to see what this looks like in real life?

Naomi Peña: Yeah, so the organization is called Literacy Academy Collective, the website is All our socials are LiteracyAcadNYC. So we’re on Twitter or X, whatever you call it now, Instagram, Facebook. And if you have any questions, you can always email us at [email protected].

Ailen Arreaza: Thank you so much. I know that a lot of parents are gonna find this information so useful and you might get some, you might get some outreach from this, so be prepared.

Naomi Peña: Yeah, yeah, no. Well, thank you so much. I’m grateful to share my story. And I know it’s the story of so many other families. Like we’re not alone in this process. And it’s not just students who have dyslexia. It’s a lot of other students as well. So I’m happy to share my story with you. Thank you so much, Ailen, for having me.

Ailen Arreaza: Thank you, Naomi.

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Catch Up!

In case you missed it, be sure to check out episode 1 — Crossing paths: The intersection of parenting and politics, and episode 2 — Parenting in the age of cyberbullying: A fight for online safety

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