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Learning about Learning Disabilities [Part 2 of 4]

2015-February 6
by Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer


[Part 2 of a 4-part blog series on our introduction to the LD field]

Last week's blog post described the phone call that got us connected with the handful of other foundations doing work in the learning disabilities (LD) field. That gave us a tremendous head start in terms of learning about the work that was being funded. It left us wondering, however, about what the front-line providers felt would help them out.

We did pretty much what you'd expect, talking to experts in the field and reading an awful lot. We still didn't feel like we had a good handle on where the field was and exactly how our funding could help. That's when we remembered the Tower Planning Study. Could another round of TPS grants, this time focused on LD, give us greater insight? We thought it was worth a try.

The difference this time was that we weren't going back to a list of previous grantees. We needed to identify new organizations to work with. We spent some time searching on the Internet and talking with people-in-the-know to find LD-focused organizations within our catchment area (or grandfathered in from the Foundation's past grantmaking), and extended invitations to participate. Again, we asked for several ideas that could be implemented in a year or less for up to $50,000. As before, we got a wide variety of responses.

Most of the project ideas we selected fell loosely into one of two categories: teacher training or individual and family supports.

Teacher Training

  • Buffalo State College teamed up with a suburban school district to train teachers in the Strategic Instruction Model (SIM), a research-validated approach to teaching students with learning differences from University of Kansas Center for Research and Learning. Several Buffalo State faculty also worked to become certified trainers in order to make SIM more readily available in Western New York. 
  • The Gow School developed and offered a summer training session for teachers. The two-day session focused on multisensory language instruction and strategies for teaching math to students with dyslexia, with several workshops highlighting different techniques, frameworks, and curricular approaches.
  • Landmark School worked with a nearby middle school to provide teachers with targeted training designed to empower students with language-based learning disabilities and differences.

Individual and Family Supports

  • Daemen College drew on an existing relationship with a nearby school to teach students with learning disabilities the organization skills they would need to make a successful transition from elementary to middle school.
  • Learning Disabilities Association of Western New York (LDAWNY) decided to focus on young adults as they enter the workforce. LDAWNY recruited skilled workers to serve as tutors and trained them to work with recent vocational training graduates to increase the graduates' chances of passing licensure exams.
  • Parent Network of Western New York used the TPS opportunity to enhance its own ability to support individuals with LD and their families by providing LD-focused professional development for its staff. Parent Network also conducted community surveys to establish the need for LD-related supports (educational, clinical, and emotional), developing two face-to-face workshops in response to the results.

The odd-project out was Carroll School, which used the opportunity to invest in some basic research. Working with a research lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carroll School conducted functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neural mechanisms preventing successful reading in students with learning disabilities.

Three things became clear from the responses we got to this project:

  1. Our communities had (and have) a real thirst for training that's useful to front-line teachers in their work with children that have LD.

  2. Individuals with LD (and their families!) need supports throughout the life course to succeed in school and in the workplace, and transitions from one school to the next and/or out of school into the work force are particularly critical.

  3. We still have a great deal to learn about what's happening in the brain and how that affects information processing.

In just a few weeks, we'll be hosting a gathering of our LD TPS grantees so they can share their projects with each other. It's our first foray into the seemingly trendy world of convening.

Next week's blog post will introduce our partnership with venture philanthropy shop New Profit. The work we're doing with New Profit represents a significant departure from our regular grantmaking; it's quite a change of pace!


Photo by Andrea Hernandez
Flickr: learning is messy | 5850374481
Creative Commons 2.0 Licensed

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