32 Masonic Learning Centers for Children, Inc.

“Transforming lives – one child at a time”

This Short Talk Bulletin was submitted by Joseph J. Berlandi, Executive Director, 32 Masonic Learning Centers for Children, Inc. and the Northern Jurisdiction, Scottish Rite.


                “It was like watching a caterpillar become a butterfly before my eyes; a miraculous transformation had occurred.”  That sentiment from a parent of a child with dyslexia being tutored, at one of our Children’s Learning Centers, is a testimony to our success.

A decade ago, in the fall of 1994, the Supreme Council of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, unanimously adopted as its fourth charity the Children’s Learning Center Program, and in so doing, took a vital leadership role in the treatment of dyslexia.

Although it was known at the time that early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are key to helping children with dyslexia learn at their age level, and even enjoy learning, few programs existed specifically to treat this condition, and no other national charity had adopted this critical need as a major concern.

Aiding children with various learning disabilities has been a successful program for many years.  However, the Scottish Rite Masons of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction are sponsoring the first program to concentrate solely on dyslexia.

The decision by the Northern Jurisdiction to make dyslexia its focus did not come a moment too soon.  Dyslexia afflicts school children and adults across the country.  Up to 20% of the U.S. population have learning disorders, and 80% of these people, many of them children, have varying degrees of reading disorders that qualify as dyslexia, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Untreated dyslexia can be devastating for young people as they struggle with low school achievement, frustration, and poor self-esteem.  The repercussions to society can be costly too, including school behavior problems, steep high school dropout and adult unemployment rates, as well as frequent dysfunctional and anti-social behaviors.

However, when the condition is detected early and appropriate remedial treatment provided, children with dyslexia can learn and succeed academically.  This treatment is crucial, because many dyslexic children are extraordinarily bright – their disability is in learning, not in intelligence.  They and their families benefit tremendously when they learn that although dyslexia is a lifelong condition, it can be managed successfully.

The comments of Anthony, from our Chicago Learning Center are representative of so many:  “When I first learned that I was dyslexic, I was scared because I thought there was something wrong with me and I did not know what to do.  It was very confusing for me.  I thought I was stupid.”

It was clear that the charitable commitment of the Northern Jurisdiction could have a significant effect on preventing the further waste of young lives and the loss of adult potential caused by undiagnosed and untreated dyslexia.  Children would be the direct and immediate beneficiaries of this effort, and additionally the effects of the program would ripple through a much wider community in innumerable positive ways.

“What excites parents so much about this program, beyond the fact that the kids learn to read and write,” explains Sovereign Grand Commander Walter E. Webber, “is the self-esteem that comes to their kids.  The Children’s Learning Centers program gives them the first experience they’ve had of feeling that they are not dumb, that they can learn, they just learn in different ways.”

Thus, in 1994, the Scottish Rite Supreme Council for the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction established the 32 Masonic Learning Centers for Children program for the purpose of creating and operating Learning Centers throughout the 15 states within the Scottish Rite Northern Jurisdiction, with the following philanthropic pledges as its core mission:

         To provide, free of charge, one-on-one multi-sensory reading and written language tutorial services to children with dyslexia;

         To provide, free of charge, training programs to individuals interested in becoming certified tutors in the Orton-Gillingham approach;

         To support research programs in dyslexia that will improve today’s clinical standards and tomorrow’s care.

The initial long-term goal of the Children’s Learning Centers program was to open 55 Learning Centers in 15 states.  Already, 47 Learning Centers in 15 states have opened and are fully operational, all of which have long waiting lists of families eager to enroll their children.  In just ten years since the program’s inception, over 5,000 children have been tutored at the Children’s Learning Centers and 750 tutors have received certification to carry out this important work.

                Children are tutored one-on-one twice a week after regular school hours.  This intense personal approach allows for the curriculum to be tailored to each individual child as necessary, and progress is made in small, readily quantifiable steps.  “For the first time Bethany is learning how to read, and no backslide is evident.  We see her willing to try things that before would have only drawn a loud ‘I can’t!’,” wrote a parent from Madison, WI.

                Enrollment in the Centers is open to any child, from kindergarten through high school, who has been diagnosed as dyslexic, regardless of Masonic affiliation, ethnicity, religion, or economic status. Admission is on a first-come, first-served basis, and tutoring is provided without cost to families.

                The response from the parents has been overwhelming as one parent offers: “I believe that our Father in Heaven is helping you and that He guided your Program to our community to answer a mother’s prayer.”

                In addition to tutoring children our program offers free training for individuals who are interested in receiving certification as tutors in the Orton-Gillingham approach.

                Following completion of our training program, tutors are certified to apply the Orton-Gillingham approach in working with learning-disabled children in the wider community, whether as direct service providers or as classroom teachers.  “I can’t even explain how much more comfortable and adequate a teacher I feel because of this.  I definitely feel I’m bringing what I’m learning at the Center into my classroom work,” says special education teacher Tara Russo, who fulfilled credits necessary for her advanced degree from Fairleigh Dickinson College by tutoring at the Scotch Plains, NJ, Learning Center.

                As part of the objective to achieve effective tutor training, we maintain active affiliations with 20 colleges and universities, providing training for advanced certification.  This enables trainees to earn education units and professional development points through arrangements with local and state boards of education.

                Over the past ten years, we have trained and certified more than 750 tutors.  In 2003 alone, more than 300 tutors received training at our Centers.

                In the spring of 2004, our program received formal accreditation from The International Multi-sensory Structured Language Education Council (IMSLEC), the national organization that accredits those training programs that meet its high standards for preparing specialists in Multi-sensory Structured Language Education.  This is further recognition of the caliber of work performed at our Centers, and the substantial contributions our program is making to children struggling with dyslexia.

                Enormously heartening are the positive effects, witnessed both anecdotally and statistically, that such tutoring has on the lives of dyslexic children, their families and their communities.  A mother of a student at the Nashua, NH, Learning Center echoed the sentiments of many when she wrote, “You are transforming lives, one child at a time.”

                As the success of the program has become more and more evident, and the lengthening waiting lists affirm that the need for these services is ever more acute, ways to expand the reach of our program are being actively explored.  This includes seeking partnerships with public and private organizations, such as school systems, communities, institutions of higher learning, and other philanthropies.

                Of particular interest is the program’s first partnership with a public school, which began in October 2003 at the Charles Sumner Elementary School in Boston.  Under the supervision of one of our Center Directors, seven teachers from the school are being trained to become certified tutors and, in turn, are tutoring 14 dyslexic students from the Sumner School.  This is an after-school program.

                “This partnership”, notes Executive Director Joseph J. Berlandi, “will enable the Children’s Learning Centers program to demonstrate that dyslexic children can be helped no matter what the setting.  The program’s objective – to help children successfully move out of special education classes and into the regular classroom community – will bring tangible benefits to all concerned:  the students, the school, and the city.  The clinical program and experienced professionals are what make the critical difference in these children’s lives, and further partnerships with other communities and schools, both public and private, are anticipated to continue expanding the reach of this rewarding endeavor.”

                Our overall program’s operating budget for 2003 was approximately $7 million.  A full 88 to 90 percent of all funding goes to the delivery of program services, including compensation to professional tutors.  It does not include the rent-free facilities donated by the Masonic fraternity, or the thousands of hours volunteered by fellow Masons and other community leaders.

                Each Center is administered by its own Center Director, hires its own staff, and has its own volunteer Board of Governors, consisting of both 32 Masons and non-Masonic members, which broadly represents the community where that Center is located, and is correspondingly diverse as to race, creed, and gender.  All Centers, however, are subject to standard operational and clinical policies and procedures established by the corporate Board of Directors.  This centralization ensures the quality of our services, notwithstanding the growth in the number of Centers.

                “The enrichment of a child’s mind is a natural piece of our charitable mosaic,” notes Grand Commander Webber, “which besides the Learning Centers involves the research we do on schizophrenia, the Abbott scholarships, and the National Heritage Museum.  Through the tutoring at the Centers, we open pathways of knowledge that otherwise would not be available to children…and are able to help a tremendous number of people in ways and on a scale that are beyond the scope of any individual.”

                We are indeed “transforming lives – one child at a time.”

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