Clearwater's The dePaul School helps students with dyslexia thrive

How do you read a word when the letters are out of place or seem to move around the page? How do you solve a simple math problem if the numbers aren’t lined up correctly?

That’s the challenge for people born with dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes it difficult to match letters to their sounds and recognize sounds and numbers.

Annmarie McEwan’s son, James, was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 6. When he began having behavior problems like angry outbursts, she resigned from her job as head of international trade for the Americas at Citibank to care for him. His teachers called him lazy and bad, she says, and put him in the back corner of the room. His first-grade teacher wrote his test grades on the board in red.

A doctor recommended a psychologist, who evaluated James and said he has a high IQ. 

“‘He just can’t read,’” McEwan recalls the psychologist saying. “‘He is what is called dyslexic.’”

It was, she remembers, “a word I had never heard of.”

A place to thrive

The psychologist recommended that she enroll James in The dePaul School for Dyslexia in Clearwater. McEwan also joined the school community. She started as a parent volunteer, eventually joined the staff, and is now executive director and head of school at dePaul, which she says is one of 145 independent elementary schools out of some 3,000 in Florida to be accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools.

About 100 students attend The dePaul School in two locations, one for grades 1 through 4 and the other for grades 5 through 8. James is now in seventh grade at Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg and is doing phenomenally well, McEwan says.

The dePaul School for DyslexiaAnnmarie McEwan“He’s reading at a very high level, his math score is 98 percentile,” she says. “His independent testing is 76 percent, and that’s not against dyslexic kids. That’s against the whole population.’’

McEwan says her son achieves because he works hard.

“He’s very motivated to not be made fun of, so he wants to make sure he knows what he’s doing,” he says.

She asked James to describe for 83 Degrees what having dyslexia is like, and he replied, “It’s like trying to read a different language. You may recognize some letters and you may even recognize some words, and you know you should know how to read but you can’t.’’

A proven approach

The dePaul School uses a methodology called the Orton-Gillingham approach, which was developed in the 1960s. It uses objects that students can touch and feel and has students use all their senses.

“Think about math as kind of an abstract thing. It’s really hard for kids who have dyslexia to pull that down to basics,’’ McEwan says. “So we turn that into something that is solid. So we use a lot of tools. We’ll count with marbles, we’ll count with M&Ms, things like that. We make it a more solid application with them.’’

To teach reading, instructors don’t just show them a textbook and say, here’s a letter A. 

“They have to hear it, they have to feel it, they have to tap it out or use their body to understand how to make the sounds,” McEwan says. “And it’s very repetitive. There could be times when a student will not pick up the letter C, and that letter C makes a certain sound, for a month. And then suddenly the light bulb will go off.’’ 

“It will transition from the working memory into the long-term memory, what we call automaticity, and they’ll keep it in their memory and they’ll have it to retrieve later,” she adds.

If done right, McEwan says it stays in their memory forever.

Expressing themselves through art

The kids also create art. 

“Most of the kids gravitate to larger kinds of conceptional things, so art is one of the things where they can express the thoughts that are in their minds easily,’’ McEwan says. “They don’t have to figure out how to write a letter.’’

Seventy-five examples of their work are on display at the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg until Aug. 1. Another 75 pieces are on display through July 26th at the Beach Art Center in Indian Rocks Beach.

Educating future teachers

McEwan, who graduated from the University of Tampa, led the effort to establish a specialty in dyslexia for education students. As it is, every education student at UT, whether specializing in dyslexia or not, spends about one day a week for a semester observing at The dePaul School. She stresses the importance of an early diagnosis so that dyslexics can get the specialized instruction they need.

Before the condition was widely known and diagnosed, schools basically gave such students F grades, held them back and pushed them along, McEwan says, noting that dyslexia has been called a pipeline to prison. Eighty percent of the prison population is dyslexic, she says. Most of them dropped out of middle school or high school.

“Because it’s hard,” McEwan says.”It’s the hardest thing they do. And they’re getting bullied. Who wants to go to school every single day when you can’t read basic words and you’re in middle school or high school?’’

For more information, go to
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.