2016 Most Influential Women Honoree: Jennifer Edwards
For Jennifer Edwards, leading a local movement to change how public education systems respond to dyslexia started with an experience close to home.
When her youngest daughter was diagnosed in 2010, Edwards set out to learn everything she could about the learning disorder and what resources were available to help.
“It was a huge struggle to determine why she was having difficulty reading and an even bigger struggle to learn what could be done to help her,” Edwards says. “Public schools had no information, training or remediation programs for children with dyslexia, even though, as I quickly learned, dyslexia affects one in five people in our population.”
Over the course of researching and attending International Dyslexia Association conferences and seminars, Edwards discovered a national grassroots movement to raise awareness and advocate for programs and legislation. In 2013, she decided to start her own organization, Decoding Dyslexia Missouri.
The nonprofit holds monthly meetings to share information and support students and their families. As president, she advocates for individualized education plans in schools and works with local school systems to implement programming around students’ needs.
“(Springfield Public Schools) has graciously acknowledged the need for addressing dyslexia specifically and is taking measures to educate their staff and teachers, which I hope will eventually lead to a specific educational program for dyslexic students,” Edwards says.
Edwards also serves on the board of the Springfield Center for Dyslexia and Learning, which she helped found last year to promote programs and services.
“The center has doubled the number of tutors from just one year ago, and currently has a waiting list for tutoring,” she says.
Not satisfied with limiting efforts to the local scale, DDM also lobbies for legislation at the state level. In 2014, the nonprofit supported House Bill 1416 to create scholarships for students and funding for families paying for private remediation, and, in 2015, helped create language for a legislative task force to determine best practices for schools to help dyslexic students.
Those experiences snowballed into Edwards’ proudest accomplishments: being involved in the writing of Missouri HB 2379. Signed by Gov. Jay Nixon in June, the bill requires public schools to screen children for signs of dyslexia as well as create professional development programs for teachers as the DDM task force helped outline last year.
Jim Anderson, vice president of marketing and public affairs for CoxHealth, says the legislation will have a lasting effect toward helping children overcome the challenges associated with the disorder.
“It’s more than simply book learning: The sooner dyslexia is addressed, the more confident and successful children are,” Anderson says. “That increased self-esteem, education and empowerment are invaluable benefits to our next generation – and benefits that might not be felt locally if not for Jennifer Edwards’ initiative.”