Dyslexia is a disorder that affects a person’s ability to learn to read or interpret words and letters, making even basic schoolwork a challenge. It gets down to the basics of the sounds of a letter, making it difficult to decode different words. It’s estimated that as much as 20 percent of people have some form of dyslexia, making even simple sentences difficult to understand.
But a greater awareness of dyslexia has led to more diagnoses, which leads to a better understanding of how to help individuals adjust. Bodine School in Germantown has worked with children dealing with dyslexia since its first students walked through the door in 1972.
Bodine’s mission is to lead the Mid-South in teaching students with dyslexia to read and succeed. An independent school in Germantown, Bodine serves students in first through sixth grades who have been diagnosed with dyslexia or similar difficulties with reading.
“Our entire focus springs off that mission,” said John Murphy, head of school.
Students go through Orton-Gillingham, an individualized, multi-sensory research-based approach to instruction.
Every school day begins with two hours of work that is focused on the remediation of dyslexia. Children work on reading fluency to start the day before moving into a routine that resembles one at any other elementary school, which is filled with lunch, PE, art, math, science and social studies.
“That’s part of the magic,” Murphy said. “We put a singular focus on that. It’s beautiful to see the children have a sense of relief. They’re around other students with dyslexia and the teachers understand it.”
Richard and Virginia Bodine started Bodine School in 1972 to honor their son, Rick, who had a fatal accident while attending school in Florida. He was there because there was a lack of resources for learning-disabled students in the Memphis area. The school began in rented space at Frayser Presbyterian Church where it served two students.
The school moved to its current location at 2432 Yester Oaks Drive in Germantown in 1979, where it has grown through the years while tightening the focus to concentrate on children with dyslexia. The school grew to include a high school in 1991, but discontinued it in 2004. The school transitioned to only serve students in first through sixth grades at the start of the 2016-2017 academic year.
Bodine is the only school in the Memphis area as well as Tennessee that is committed only to teaching children with dyslexia and other reading-related issues.
The school’s leaders are aware it’s not the first choice in education.
“Nobody looks at a child in the crib and says, ‘I want my child to go to Bodine,’ so that makes us unique,” Murphy said. “The emotional path for these kids, they struggle, they hit a wall, they feel dumb. Parents are frustrated and they come here out of a sense of need. We are a school of need. If you come here you need this type of education. That’s an emotional path.”
Murphy is in his second year at Bodine after 28 years as dean at St. Dominic where the mission was to retain students. At Bodine, it’s all about preparing students to go back to a school of their choice as soon as possible.
Transition is the ultimate goal for every child. The average stay at Bodine is three years.
“We go into the admissions process with transition in mind,” said Lyle Davis, Director of Education for fourth through sixth grades. “We try to get rid of people. The business model makes no sense. Essentially, though, we try to equip kids and families with their own skills and tools to access what they need to be successful.”
Not every parent who seeks out Bodine ultimately sends their child there. Bodine equips parents with resources that might instead direct them to a trained teacher, someone who can serve as a tutor while the student remains in a regular school.
“What differentiates our school from other resource programs is that we can dedicate hours daily to remediate things and trying to provide mainstream curriculum,” Davis said. “So if a child is frustrated because they know they can learn but can’t keep up we can help them, and they can access what they need and then they can go back and function really well.”
The class sizes are small, and since every child is pulled out for individualized instruction it doesn’t make them feel odd when it occurs.
Students enter Bodine at various points of the academic year. The student population increased by 10 percent at the Christmas break.
“They came to us and started in January because they were all struggling and miserable at their other school,” Murphy said. “It’s the most stressful admissions process I’ve ever been part of.”
But it can be rewarding when those students move on to successful transitions. For admission, children must have a psychological educational evaluation completed by a licensed psychologist who will diagnose dyslexia or a reading disability. Children who attend Bodine come in with at least average intelligence; it’s rigorous work and it’s important that other behavioral issues don’t keep them back.
Bodine is a private school that’s supported by tuition and donations. Many of the students attend the school thanks to financial aid.
Murphy said it’s important to move past misconceptions of what dyslexia is. Some adults might have it but have written it off as not being a good speller or reader. Murphy estimated that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 children in Shelby County who could use the education Bodine School provides.
“Sometimes people think we cure dyslexia but that’s not possible,” he said. “Our goal is to help children access their education so they can look at a science text and be able to comprehend a paragraph about covalent bonding because they are good readers. They might not be fast or accurate, and they might have spelling difficulties, but they are confident and fluent readers who can comprehend texts.”