After almost eight years of lobbying, Beth Ravelli sat stunned as the state Senate unanimously passed a group of bills Thursday that should make it easier for children with dyslexia and other reading disorders to be diagnosed and treated.
“I just didn’t think it would go so smoothly after all the time we spent pushing,” the Ocean City woman said, eyes tearing with emotion. “But I think it took eight years to educate people what it was.”
Ravelli and her daughter, Samantha, sat with state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, at the Statehouse in Trenton as the vote was tallied.
Samantha, who is going into her junior year in high school, pressed the yes button for Van Drew’s votes, just as she had in 2009 when a bill to form the New Jersey Reading Disabilities Task Force was passed.
The bills, which passed the Assembly in April, are based on the recommendations of the task force. The most crucial requires the state Board of Education to incorporate the International Dyslexia Association’s definition of dyslexia into state special education regulations. Students have typically been instead diagnosed with a specific learning disability, which advocates said did not mandate the specific remedial programs students with dyslexia need.
Other bills would require teachers to get training in reading disabilities and require the state to provide training opportunities. A Senate resolution also urges the state to develop a certificate for teachers of students with dyslexia.
All of those bills now go to the Governor’s Office for final approval.
An additional bill that would require all children to be screened for reading disabilities by the end of first grade passed the Senate but must still be reviewed by the Assembly Budget and Appropriations Committee and approved by the Assembly because of potential concerns about the cost.
Van Drew also sponsored a Senate resolution honoring Beth Ravelli for her “exemplary dedication and steadfast commitment” on behalf of children with dyslexia, a neurological disorder that makes it difficult to process language, letters and sounds.
Van Drew spoke about how relentless Ravelli was in wanting to help all children, not just her own. He admitted he did not know much about the disorder before meeting the Ravellis.
Samantha was in third grade and could not read when she was first featured in a 2005 article in The Press of Atlantic City on the lack of programs for children with dyslexia in area schools and statewide. Her mother contacted legislators and got the attention of Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, and Van Drew.
“I remember how excited I was to mail out all these packets to legislators and how I cried when I didn’t get any response, and then I met Albano and it was a totally different world,” Beth Ravelli said.
A group of supporters attended Thursday’s Senate session and said they will lobby to make sure the governor signs the bills, and that the screening bill also gets approved in the fall.
Liz Barnes, of Plumsted Township in Ocean County, a founder of the New Jersey chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, said the bills should change the conversation in schools about how to educate children with dyslexia.
“Schools will no longer be able to tell parents that they don’t recognize dyslexia,” she said. “It may still be a battle to get the interventions, but they won’t be able to say the child is just slow or not trying.”
Will Marsh, 17, a high school senior from Rahway, Union County, said he was never officially diagnosed with dyslexia, only with a specific learning disability. He learned to read not in school but at a Scottish Rite Masons Reading Clinic, which specializes in the Orton-Gillingham multisensory method of teaching reading that has shown to be effective with dyslexia. He is now organizing a workshop in October on dyslexia.
After the hearing, Ravelli said there will always be work to do, but the state will now have to take on some of the responsibility. It will also be up to parents and students to take advantage of what is offered, she said.
“Parents have to stand up and take responsibility for and advocate for their children,” she said. “And the students have to be willing to work hard, too. Samantha worked very hard to learn to read. It’s still not easy for her. But she never gave up.”
As she left the Statehouse with Samantha and her husband, John, Ravelli said she hopes, based on previous contact with the Governor’s Office, that the bills have Gov. Chris Christie’s support. Once they are signed into law, she is ready for a break.
“I’m just so happy for all the children,” Ravelli said. “But now I’m going to go home and relax for awhile.”
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