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Dyslexia work leads teacher to graduation


Dana Blackhurst was 16 when he dropped out of Northrop High School and left Fort Wayne and his double life behind.

Up to that point in the mid-1970s, he had conned everybody at his high school as well as teachers at Northwood Middle School and Holland Elementary School. Nobody knew the class clown couldn’t read or write.

Blackhurst went on to become nationally known for his work with dyslexic students and has headed several schools that serve children with learning disabilities. Blackhurst even married one of the most powerful women in Las Vegas, Jan Jones, a former mayor and current executive at Harrah’s Entertainment.

Despite all his accolades and accomplishments, Blackhurst still reads at a third- or fourth-grade level. He wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia as a high school student, but Blackhurst recognizes his learning disability now.

“I didn’t do anything for the first 12 years of my education,” Blackhurst said. “I didn’t know at the time I was severely dyslexic. I just thought I was slow.”

Blackhurst, 50, will own up to his double life and be rewarded for his accomplishments today at Northrop. Blackhurst will receive his high school diploma – something that has been missing from his life for nearly 35 years.

“It means a lot to me, my high school diploma,” Blackhurst said. “I’ve never been the guy who got in yearbooks. I was never able to go to the prom.”

Blackhurst won’t be issued an honorary diploma. No, this is an actual diploma.

Northrop Principal Barb Ahlersmeyer said after she was alerted to his story, she checked his college credits at Erskine College in South Carolina, where it took Blackhurst nearly eight years to receive a bachelor’s degree. Blackhurst’s work matched up with the high school graduation requirements from 1976, the year he would have finished school.

During a 1:30 p.m. assembly, Blackhurst will also tell freshmen his story.

“We hope to motivate students who kind of get down in the dumps around third quarter and show that hard work and perseverance pays off and that you can overcome things and that dyslexia and any kind of handicap is not a death sentence,” Ahlersmeyer said.

Blackhurst is known for his unique teaching style that he says helps dyslexic students learn better. He uses a multisensory approach, figuring the students will learn better by doing rather than just reading.

“I think what makes Dana the most unique is that he never gives up on a child,” his wife said. “He recognizes their strengths, he teaches to their weaknesses, so he makes the whole stronger, and he engages children.”

One example involves students throwing a tennis ball at a map to learn where certain cities are in the country.

Blackhurst looks at educating like coaches look at sports. Many athletes are trained to learn plays and skills at a young age so when they enter high school or college, the coaches don’t have to train them or start from scratch, Blackhurst said. It’s the same in education: first-graders should be taught the beginning skills of what they’ll need to know in high school so they can build on those in subsequent years, he said.

Blackhurst practiced these techniques as the headmaster of Camperdown Academy in Greenville, S.C., the executive director of the Center for Innovative Learning at The Carroll School in Lincoln, Mass., and now as headmaster at Pine Ridge School in Williston, Vt.

“I think what makes him unique is his passion, his commitment and his own personal experience that’s continuing to motivate students to do whatever they dream to do,” said Kim Alsop, board member for Pine Ridge School who hired Blackhurst.

He was named the South Carolina Middle School Teacher of the Year in 1990 and has spoken at 20 International Dyslexia Association conferences.

“My whole goal is I don’t want kids to end up like me, and I don’t want them feel like I did growing up,” Blackhurst said.