Empowered to read

Learning Ally to help dyslexic students across the archdiocese

For a child with dyslexia, reading can be a nightmare.

Statistics show that one in five students have a language-based learning disability, the most common of which is dyslexia. The Office of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Denver has long sought solutions to help students who struggle with learning disabilities, and in the case of dyslexia, they’ve found one in Learning Ally. Thanks to a generous donation from the Zarlengo Foundation, Learning Ally will be implemented in all 36 archdiocesan schools by next Fall.

Learning Ally is an assistive reading program specifically for children who either suffer from dyslexia or are blind or visually impaired. It features a library of 80,000 human-narrated audiobooks that students can access on a computer or a smartphone app. The program was launched in six pilot schools within the archdiocese last Summer, and the schools that used it have seen great success.

“The archdiocese was in great need of something for their kids with learning disabilities,” said Katie Zarlengo, executive director of the Zarlengo Foundation. “Learning Ally was the best way to bring a good, solid program to a great number of kids.”

On April 8, a Learning Ally rally was held at one of the pilot schools, Guardian Angels in Denver, that celebrated the widespread implementation of the program. Students and faculty from Guardian Angels and Bishop Machebuef High School were in attendance and it featured testimonials of three young women from around the country who won the Learning Ally National Achievement Award.

While Learning Ally may be new to some students in the archdiocese, others have been reaping its benefits for several years. Paige Wood, a sophomore at Bishop Machebeuf, has been using Learning Ally since 7th grade. The program has helped to relieve her of the stress of being required to read more in high school, she said, and she likes Learning Ally because, unlike the aim of other similar programs, it doesn’t try to fix dyslexia.

Skye Malik (left), Emily Daly (center), and Auburn Stephenson (right) pose with a Guardian Angels student during the Learning Ally rally on April 8 at Guardian Angels school. Malik, Daly and Stephenson are all recipients of the Learning Ally National Achievement Award, and they travel around the country sharing their success stories in using Learning Ally. (Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic)

Skye Malik (left), Emily Daly (center), and Auburn Stephenson (right) pose with a Guardian Angels student during the Learning Ally rally on April 8 at Guardian Angels school. Malik, Daly and Stephenson are all recipients of the Learning Ally National Achievement Award, and they travel around the country sharing their success stories in using Learning Ally. (Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic)

Wood is on the basketball team at Bishop Machebeuf, and she said that Learning Ally helps her to focus more as an athlete too. Some of her friends on the basketball team also struggle with dyslexia, and it’s been encouraging for her to know that she’s not alone.

“It’s kind of cool to be able to relate with them,” Wood said. “I’ll call them some nights [for help] and we’ll figure it out together. It’s always cool having a community around you.”

Even those who are new to Learning Ally are seeing success. A group of 7th graders at Guardian Angels are in their first year using Learning Ally, and with it they’ve been able to read books faster and better understand what they’re reading.

“It helps me to understand the book to where it feels like I’m actually in the book,” one student said.

“It’s helped me finish books easier and faster while all my friends finish a book in a week [that normally] takes me a month,” another shared.

Zarlengo has a close connection with Catholic schools, as she went to St. Vincent de Paul herself when she was growing up. She is working closely with the Office of Catholic Schools to bring more programs like Learning Ally to them in an effort to help a greater number of kids who have learning disabilities.

“It is such a great joy that we’re able to get something in Catholic schools to help with learning disabilities,” Zarlengo said.

COMING UP: Denver Catholic schools partner with Learning Ally to aid struggling readers

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The Office of Denver Catholic Schools has announced an extended partnership with Learning Ally, a nonprofit organization that provides programs and services to assist students who struggle with reading, made possible thanks in large part to a generous donation of more than $200,000 made by the Zarlengo Foundation.

“Thanks to the Zarlengo Foundation and other donors, we have been able to partner with Learning Ally to access more than 80,000 audio books to support our readers who benefit from that assistive technology,” said Mary Cohen, assistant superintendent of Denver Catholic schools.

A principals meeting was held at the Pastoral Center on March 9 announcing the expanded partnership. Two students from St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School shared their success stories in using Learning Ally.

Learning Ally was launched as a pilot program in Summer of 2015, initially growing to support 260 students in six archdiocesan schools, a press release said. The expanded program in the Archdiocese of Denver will reach all 36 archdiocesan schools and increase the number of students served by Learning Ally to more than 8,000 students across Colorado.

The partnership with Learning Ally is a part of a larger plan that the Office of Catholic Schools is working on to better address students in their schools who face learning challenges.

“The challenge we face as a school system is providing the best instruction and assistive technologies for students with learning challenges,” Cohen said. “We will never have the resources to meet all special needs students in our system but we are committed to seeking support to assist as many as possible.”