Community forum discussing reading policy

To my knowledge, only one public school in the United States has run a full-fledged traditional vision therapy program within the school system and made it available to all students in the lower grades who had reading problems of one sort or another. The program ran from the 2008-2009 school year through the 2014-2015 school year at the Melrose-Mindoro School District in Wisconsin. I was a board member at the time.

Only one public record of the results is available, that being for the first class of 5th graders that could take advantage of the program. I'll present those results after describing how they were derived.

Melrose-Mindoro has between 700 and 800 students K-12, or about 60 students per grade level. In the 2008-09 school year, at least ten 5th graders went through the vision therapy program. Admittance was liberal. If a parent, a previous classroom teacher, or reading specialist thought a student would benefit, that student was enrolled in the program after evaluation by the developmental optometrist contracted to run the program.

State Reading Testing

Wisconsin, at the time, administered a statewide reading test in 4th and 7th grades. Melrose-Mindoro was committed to having every student take the tests. Of those 5th graders in the vision therapy program that year, ten of them had taken the 4th grade state test at the end of the previous year, and went on to take the 7th grade test at the end of 7th grade (two years after finishing vision therapy.) Those are the students that were reported on at a school board meeting. You can download the results below for reference when I discuss them in the rest of this article.

Of the 50 or so students who took the 4th grade state reading test, only 40 of them also took the 7th grade test three years later. Of that 40, as mentioned earlier, ten went through vision therapy in 5th grade.

The graph shows the change in statewide ranking for each student from 4th to 7th grade. A red line indicates the student's rank was lower in 7th than in 4th grade, and a green line indicates the student's rank increased. The ten students who had VT are listed at the top of the graph. The 30 students who did not have VT are listed at the bottom.

The graph is reasonably self-explanatory, so I'll highlight the results:

  • Nine of the ten VT students increased their ranking. The one who decreased was by only three percentage points.
  • Half of the Non-VT students saw their rankings fall, while half saw their ranking rise or stay the same.
  • The VT students as a group increased their ranking by an average of 16.6 percentage points.
  • The Non-VT students as a group reduced their ranking by a modest 1.8%
  • While not indicated on the graph, the average ranking for the entire cohort of 40 students increased by 2.8%.
  • The three largest positive changes in ranking of 44, 30, and 30 percentage points were all by students in the VT group.

Unfortunately, additional data was not collected and summarized, so is unavailable, but the results for that one class were clearly positive. Due to issues that will be discussed in companion articles, the program was discontinued after the 2014-15 school year.

An additional anecdotal result

I will share one story that captures one overall view of the program. At a regular school board meeting following the fourth year of the program one item on the agenda was to consider discontinuing the program. In an unusual confluence of events, two different topics had brought a number of parents to the board meeting, one related to starting a pre-Kindergarten program and the other to a sports matter, but the vision therapy discussion was listed ahead of those items on the agenda. (A typical school board meeting had only one or two parents attending during those years.)

At least a half dozen of the parents present chimed in to vociferously support the program

When the board discussion began, out of the blue, at least a half dozen of the parents present chimed in to vociferously support the program based upon their experience of having their own children go through it in the past years. Ironically, those parents were not there for that particular agenda item.

The impact of their testimony on the board and the administration was significant enough to get the program continued for another year, after which the program was discontinued. I should also note that the administration had changed since the program was initiated and I was no longer on the school board when it was discontinued.

Concluding Remarks

The Melrose-Mindoro vision therapy program was not reading therapy; it was a legitimate vision therapy program provided by on-site vision therapists with the homework exercises overseen by trained aides employed by the school.

The program was overseen by developmental optometrist, Dr. Ann Wonderling of the Family Vision Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin who evaluated each of the students before starting the program, and again later to evaluate progress in vision skill development. The vision therapists were under her employ.

Duplicating the program will not be easy. It will be disruptive to existing classes, expensive, controversial, and will require finding a developmental optometrist willing to work with the school district. But, in my opinion, and in view of the results at one school, it will be worth it. To get a good sense of what will be involved, see the companion article Operating a School-Based Vision Therapy Program.