Girl battling dyslexia named national self-advocate in special education

ROELAND PARK, Kan. -- Champions and heroes come in all sizes and ages and in many places other than battlefields and sports stadiums. This week’s FOX 4 Young Achiever is a small but mighty champion of learning and an advocate for herself and others in getting the most effective education possible to succeed to their fullest potential. In fact, she is a state and national award winner in doing exactly that.

You can see the fierce determination in her eyes as she attacks the words on the page in front of her. Ryleigh Touart has severe dyslexia, so reading and writing have always been extremely difficult. But at Horizon Academy, a local non-profit private school that specializes in teaching children with learning disabilities, Ryleigh is mastering specialized strategies to decode the frustrating puzzles of letters and words and sounds so that one day they will be automatic for her.

“She battles every day,” said Gerilyn Semro, Ryleigh’s classroom teacher at Horizon Academy. “She incorporates the work, the struggle, the success, all of it, and every day comes with a smile and works hard and is kind to other people and just knocks it out of the park. Every day.”

It is clear that Ryleigh, even so young, hasn't just sat back and waited for things to happen to her or for her. She’s been a strong champion for herself, taking the initiative to help create the opportunities that have enabled her to improve and soar.

“I feel more confident,” said Ryleigh, the FOX 4 Young Achiever of the Week. “And I feel more – better about myself.”

Before Ryleigh came to Horizon Academy a year and a half ago, she was in a public school setting. And in spite of a special education plan for her there, Ryleigh was absolutely stymied, stuck way below grade level in reading and writing.

“I felt invisible,” said Ryleigh. Finally, she had enough. She told her parents she wanted and needed something else, a different and better place to learn. They searched and found Horizon. And Ryleigh has leapfrogged to nearly a fourth grade reading level and to grade level in math.

“She’s a very intelligent little girl,” said Beverly Touart, Ryleigh’s mom. “And she just tried so hard and she just wasn’t getting the help she needed. And now, with the proper help, she is able to achieve miracles almost. It’s been a miracle.”

“I can do a lot of stuff that I used to couldn’t do,” said Ryleigh with pride. “I can read chapter books now.”

Ryleigh also takes charge at the school meetings she and her parents have with her teachers and school administrators to discuss her progress and what she’ll be doing next to keep her on track.

“She’s got her spark back,” said Chantel Touart, Ryleigh’s mom. “She’s happy again. And she’s joyful. And she just – it’s like having a new kid all over again.”

And now Ryleigh, confident and empowered, is a role model and example for all children all over the country who learn differently. Because of her perseverance, her successful transformation, and her remarkable maturity and drive in supporting herself, the Council for Exceptional Children has made Ryleigh its Missouri and National "Yes I Can" award recipient for self-advocacy.

“We tried to express to her that your voice is the most powerful tool you have and you need to use it,” Chantel said.

“She’s just such a smart girl,” said Semro. “She has this great personality. And it’s all being able to come out now because she can read and she can write and she feels she can speak for herself.”

“I feel not invisible now anymore,” said Ryleigh.

Ryleigh is determined now to go to MIT for college to study science and become a "myth buster." And she’s already thinking about being a parent herself one day and adopting children who don’t have parents of their own and give them the chance to be all that they can be.

FOX 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments. In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence, we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism. Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Wednesday on FOX 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on FOX 4 News at 8 a.m. and noon.