OCEAN CITY — Most families hang photos or paintings over their living room sofa.
The Ravelli family has a large reproduction of New Jersey Senate bill S2400, introduced in December 2008 by state Sen. Jeff Van Drew.
The bill, to establish a New Jersey Reading Disabilities Task Force, represented both a milestone and the first step in what would be an almost decade-long family battle to help children with dyslexia and other reading disabilities get the specialized services they need to learn to read.
In January 2014, Gov. Chris Christie signed the last of four bills that would recognize dyslexia as a specific disability, provide training for teachers and screening of young children.
Samantha Ravelli was just 8 when she was first featured in an article in The Press of Atlantic City, demonstrating the Orton Gillingham program she was using to learn to read. Samantha, who has dyslexia, will graduate from Ocean City High School with honors Friday. In between, she and her family helped change the way New Jersey addresses dyslexia.
Dyslexia advocates say New Jersey’s dyslexia laws have had a huge impact on raising awarenes…
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The Ravellis’ personal battle began in 2005, when Beth began contacting legislators after struggling to get services for daughter Samantha, who was in third grade and could not read.
In 2006, the Ravellis moved from Weymouth Township to Ocean City, which offered the specialized Wilson Reading Program, and that’s what motivated Beth to get more politically active.
“I just thought, ‘Why should someone have to move to get a program like this?’” she said. “Most people can’t do that. I couldn’t believe that in America we weren’t doing all we could to make sure all children could read.”
Van Drew, D-Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, said Samantha Ravelli’s perseverance and desire to help others convinced him and his colleague Assemblyman Nelson Albano to act. Both visited Ocean City schools and watched Samantha’s progress, clinching their commitment.
Samantha, whose dazzling smile and quiet determination charmed and impressed legislators, became the face of dyslexia in New Jersey.
Samantha has spoken at hearings at the Statehouse in Trenton, attended conferences – and most of all, learned to read. Her favorite memory?
“Pressing the button to vote,” she said grinning, remembering when Van Drew invited her to the Statehouse and let her press the “yes” button on his desk to approve the package of bills.
“She is the living proof that these programs do work,” Van Drew said.
Now 18, Samantha doesn’t seek the limelight, but understands her role in the importance of what was accomplished. Reading is still a challenge. Sometimes letters and words still “pop off the paper,” and she uses the skills she learned to track letters and sounds, and help focus.
“It gets better,” she said of dyslexia. “But it never goes away.”
She gets more time to take exams, and passed the state graduation test. But the SAT was a struggle. Colleges where she had appeared as a dyslexia advocate did not admit her as a student, but she took it in stride, deciding community college was the best place to start.
She has enrolled in Atlantic Cape Community College, where she will get special accommodations, such as a note-taker as needed.
Samantha’s mother calls her resilient, and wonders if the bills would have passed if Samantha had not been so determined to learn to read, working with tutors and getting extra help in school.
“If she hadn’t succeeded, we might not have gone so far,” Beth said. “She proved specialized programs work. Every year she got better and better.”
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It took three years of hearings, and meeting and cajoling legislators, to get the Reading Disabilities Task Force bill passed and implemented. Task force recommendations led to a series of bills in 2013.
By then, more parents had gotten involved, an advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia NJ was formed, and its members began lobbying legislators in North Jersey about the issue. Beth Ravelli and Ocean City schools were filmed for a short movie called “American Dyslexia” by Matthew Badger.
By the time the bills passed in 2013, the vote was almost unanimous. A stunned Ravelli watched as the voting board lit up.
Van Drew said the culture had changed, and once legislators were more educated about the issue, it was easier to get support.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Beth said of the vote. “I just thought about how many times we got shot down.”
Today the state Department of Education has a website devoted to dyslexia resources, and happy parents call Beth Ravelli to thank her and say their child was tested, a dramatic change from the crying parents who used to call desperately looking for help.
“It’s just just so cool,” Beth said. “Before it was always about fighting to get tested, to get help.”
With Samantha graduating, Beth is winding down her advocacy, glad that groups like Decoding Dyslexia will continue to raise awareness. She recently went on the state Department of Education website and saw their new section on dyslexia resources.
“I just sat there smiling,” she said.