Under the watchful eye of Laura Beery, Tristan Cordova uses his finger to write “ - stle” in the sand. He says it out loud. “Let’s do that three more times,” Beery says. Eventually, she shows him a list of words that include the phonics blend and asks him to read it out loud.
“Castle. Wrestle ...”
At first glance, it may seem like play but make no mistake — this is work. It’s all part of the multisensory approach educators at Cullinan Education Center apply to teach reading, writing and spelling skills to children who struggle academically.
“Sand is a very powerful, tactile activity,” Joanne Cullinan, the center’s founder, explained. “It helps them retain information when you employ that multisensory approach.”
This approach is a defining feature of the Orton Gillingham Method, an instructional approach first developed in the 1930s that is considered the gold standard for correcting reading problems. It incorporates the three learning pathways — auditory, kinesthetic and visual — to teach students the connections between sounds and letters. Cullinan has developed a modified version of the method.
Cullinan founded the center that bears her name in 1990, after moving to Fresno from Michigan and struggling to find services to accommodate her daughter, who had been diagnosed with dyslexia and struggled with reading. “There were no services in the Central Valley that compared to the type of service she was getting privately in Michigan,” she recalled.
“My daughter was in the 5th grade, reading at a 1st grade reading level, and 18 months in the program closed her gap. When we moved here to Fresno and I started trying to find a program for her ... the closest [program] was in Monterey, San Francisco or Los Angeles ... yet back in the Midwest, these [were] nationally acclaimed programs.”
This frustration, coupled with a determination to help her daughter and other children with learning differences, moved Cullinan — then an executive director at a vocational college — to act. After going through extensive training in the Orton Gillingham method, she opened the center, which originally operated out of donated space in a local church.
Now located at Friant Road and Fresno Street (it shares a parking lot with the soon-to-open Dave and Buster’s), the facility includes training rooms, administrative offices and small “classrooms” where about 20 educators (all of whom are credentialed, degreed or certified) work with students.
“Our specialty is seeing the student who has a diagnosed learning disability,” Cullinan said, “but we also see students who simply need enhancement to what they are already receiving in the conventional classroom.”
While strategies taught in the Orton Gillingham approach can be beneficial to all students, they are of most benefit to students with dyslexia. “Often, people think that dyslexia is when you read words backwards or scramble letters, but dyslexia is actually a phonological processing disorder. There are so many children with a need for a program like ours,” she said, adding that experts estimate 85 percent of students in RSP programs have dyslexia.
“When a parent calls,” she said, “we set up a consultation with them at no charge because we want to get as much information as we can before we decide what type of program would be best.”
On a student’s first day at the center, she added, they complete an inventory going all the way back to kindergarten. “We need to see what they have truly mastered and what they are missing.”
It’s all about closing learning gaps so children find success in the classroom: “Children are very fragmented. They have gaps and holes all the way through. We want to look at correcting the problem, so if we have to go back and fill in those gaps and holes, we want to do it from the bottom up and eventually catch up to the level they’re at.”
This is especially important, she added, in the age of Common Core, a progressive curriculum which begins in kindergarten.
“We have seen several [students] going through the program exceed grade level [standards].” she noted.
Although Cullinan Education Center is able to test students for dyslexia, Cullinan said, many students have already gone through additional testing through their school district or under the care of a neuropsychologist. “We get a lot of referrals from area psychiatrists, from pediatricians, from various resource centers.”
Other referrals come from satisfied clients. Cullinan has a stack of letters from grateful parents and caregivers who saw positive progress in their children who have gone through Cullinan programs. “So much of our enrollment comes from word of mouth,” she said, “one parent telling another parent.”
The center also offers programs to help students who are working below grade level in math, writing or reading comprehension, as well as those who simply need extra help with homework or developing study skills. These programs are aligned with Common Core standards, and Cullinan educators maintain contact with the student’s teachers to make sure their programs dovetail with the classroom curriculum.
“All of our programs have a meta-cognitive approach,” Cullinan emphasized. “Children are not just memorizing skills rotely, but understanding why they’re doing what they’re doing. Looking at the bigger picture and having those analytical skills are so important for educational growth.”
Cullinan’s methods have proven to be so successful that school districts and schools throughout the state — including Sanger Unified — contract with the center to provide teacher training in her version of the Orton Gillingham method.
“We’re so unique because we offer that teacher training piece as well,” she said. “We know that we can’t service all the children in this valley who need services. Providing the teacher training allows us to reach those children.”
Two years ago , she said, Cullinan Education Center contracted with Fresno Unified School District to provide services to 800 students in the district’s lowest performing schools. “It was a great success and one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.”
As she nears retirement, Cullinan said she’s trying to transition to a reduced schedule; she eventually plans to turn things over to daughter Michelle Fleming (“the reason all of this exists”). Until then, it takes only a walk around the center on a busy afternoon to understand why she got into this business in the first place: “The children,” she said, “really do fuel you.”
As the 2016-17 school year begins, Joanne Cullinan has the following tips for parents of all school-aged children:
▪ Provide your child with good nutrition and a sufficient amount of sleep
▪ Provide a structured environment enabling your child to develop good homework and study habits, including a quiet and consistent work space free of distractions. Be available to answer questions and offer assistance.
▪ Maintain communication with your child’s teacher.
▪ Set an achievement expectation. Limited expectations often yield limited results.
▪ Do not delay interventions; if your child begins to struggle, seek appropriate help.
Cullinan Education Center offers a variety of science-based programs to help students reach their full academic potential. Visit www.cullinaneducation.com or call (559) 435-3276 to receive information on services, programs and fees.