From left, Samantha Ravelli and her mother, Beth, in Trenton Thursday March 14, 2013.

Diane D'Amico

Bills to improve the education of children with dyslexia and other reading disorders easily advanced Thursday in the Assembly Education Committee in Trenton, which endorsed all of the bills after sometimes emotional testimony.

The first to testify was Beth Ravelli, of Ocean City, and her daughter, Samantha, who initiated the effort seven years ago after struggling to get help for Samantha, who is dyslexic.

“This all really goes back to one child in third grade who could not read,” said Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, a primary sponsor of the bills, who introduced the Ravellis.

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He said Ravelli’s persistence has generated a movement that has grown from one child to thousands of children who are undiagnosed or not getting access to the programs they need to deal with dyslexia and other reading disabilities.

“These bills are about making sure every child has access,” Albano said.

The proposed bills are based on recommendations of the state Reading Disabilities Task Force. They include:

* Requiring all public school students to be screened for reading disorders in kindergarten,

* Requiring teachers to get 20 hours of training in reading disabilities and the state Department of Education to provide training opportunities;

* Incorporating the definition of dyslexia into state special education regulations

* Encouraging the state Board of Education to development an endorsement to certification for teachers of students with dyslexia.

Ravelli specifically asked that the committee pass the bill requiring all kindergarten children be screened.

“My daughter was 7 years old when we started, and in two weeks she will be driving,” Ravelli said with Samantha by her side. “This is too late for us. We are doing this now for future children.”

Ravelli said Samantha was lucky to have been able to get tutors both private and in school after the family moved to Ocean City, which offers the Wilson reading system, a multi-sensory program that focuses on linking sounds to letters. Samantha has made the honor roll and been in the school play.

“She is everything I was told she would never be,” Ravelli said, recalling the struggle to help Samantha, who in third grade still could not read. “These bills are in my heart. I know if we get the children early it will make a difference.”

Now a high school sophomore, Samantha worked diligently through school to learn to read. At the hearing she read a poem that has inspired her through the years. It ends, “Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man. But sooner or later the person who wins is the one who thinks they can.”

Several other parents and advocates from throughout the state also spoke and said they could have filled the hearing room with hundreds of parents who have been told their child wasn’t trying hard enough to learn, or that there was no more they could do for them.

Speakers said research over the last decade has shown that children with dyslexia need specific types of reading programs. The neurological disorder makes it difficult to process language and convert letters into sounds and words.

There were some questions about the bills. The New Jersey School Boards Association is concerned about the potential cost of screening and if it could become an unfunded mandate. The New Jersey Education Association and New Jersey Association of Principals and Supervisors said they want to be sure the teacher training is targeted and appropriate.

Albano said they would ask the Office of Legislative Services to do a cost analysis of the screening. Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, D-Essex, Morris, a co-sponsor of the bills who had a child with dyslexia, said the report should also include an estimate of the long-term cost of remediation for a child who is not diagnosed early. She recalled the struggle she went through to get proper instruction for her child.

Senate versions of the bills have also been introduced by Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, but have not yet been heard. Albano said he would work to have them quickly posted for a hearing. The bills would also require a vote before the full Assembly and Senate.

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