Samantha Ravelli, the Ocean City student who inspired the state Reading Disability Task Force, is now a high school freshman slowly working her way through “Of Mice and Men” for English class.
Her lobbying efforts in Trenton with her mother, Beth, inspired a statewide movement of parents who want to raise awareness of dyslexia, a brain disorder that makes it hard to decode sounds and letters into words and affects at least 10 percent of the population.
Dyslexic children struggle to read, but can be taught using specialized reading programs. Samantha’s success has made her a statewide role model. But not all schools offer those programs — and, like Samantha’s own road to reading, progress has been steady but slow.
“A group of us went to a convention in October,” said parent Deborah Lynam, of Haddon Heights. “And we realized we needed to get more organized to have a louder voice in the state and with legislators.”
A new group, Decoding Dyslexia NJ, has a website and Facebook page, and has begun holding workshops around the state. Supporters helped rally more than 130 people to the task force’s public hearing in Trenton in April, and a parent questioned Gov. Chris Christie about recognizing dyslexia at a town meeting in Freehold earlier this month.
Christie agreed the state has not been doing all it should, and said he expects “good and aggressive” recommendations from the task force, which is expected to present its report this summer.
Ravelli said she is thrilled that the task force has mobilized support around the state. She has been working with Decoding Dyslexia.
“It’s really given me a lift to have that support,” she said. “I feel like I’ve gotten a break from doing all the work.”
Beth and Samantha were honored this month by the Reading Council of Southern New Jersey, which gave them a Celebrate Literacy Award for their years of work. Awards Chairwoman Diane Mazzei said they wanted to recognize both the efforts made to raise awareness of dyslexia and Samantha’s own diligence in learning to read.
“It is not getting all the attention it deserves,” Mazzei said. “Some school districts are better, but more can be done.”
The Press of Atlantic City first wrote about Samantha in November 2005 when she was in third grade and could not read at all. Her family had paid for private evaluations and tutoring, but found few public schools offered the specialized phonics-based multisensory programs most effective for dyslexia. The family moved from Weymouth Township to Ocean City, which offers the targeted Wilson reading system, but it bothered Beth that most schools seemed to know little about dyslexia when learning to read is such an essential skill.
She and Samantha lobbied legislators and got support from Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who introduced the bill to create the task force in 2009. Samantha testified in Trenton, the bill passed, and both Albano and Ravelli now serve on the task force.
But parents and advocates remain concerned that time is passing and students are still struggling. The bill was signed into law in January 2010, but it was March 2011 before newly elected Gov. Christie named the task force. The group began meeting last summer, with the goal of presenting a report within one year.
For Samantha, now 15, this year’s challenge has been adjusting to high school. She completed the specialized Wilson reading program at the intermediate school, but still gets extra help in high school, which she admits is more challenging. She wants to go to college and is taking college prep courses.
Despite more homework, she remains the cheerful girl with the engaging smile who hated to admit she could not read and persevered until she could. She still struggles, and has ups and downs with grades, but is succeeding.
“I was worried about her going to high school,” Beth said. “But her teachers have been great.”
Samantha will take sign language as her second language, and also is interested in photography. She did have a small crisis when her math teacher said students would not be allowed to use calculators, but arrangements were made for her to use one. Her school day includes a study hall so she can start on her homework, and she also studies in the evening at the dining room table, her tiny dog Noelle curled in her lap.
“She really prefers to study on her own,” Beth said. “But then she will ask me to quiz her on the work.”
Samantha admits “Of Mice and Men” was difficult, nodding her head reluctantly when asked if she had a hard time with it.
“Oh, wait ’til you get to Shakespeare,” her older sister Roseann said.
While audiobooks can be an option, Samantha actually likes to read, and is currently a fan of the “Pretty Liars Club” series.
Advocates said they would like the state Department of Education to recognize dyslexia as a specific disability rather than lump it into the “learning disability” category as is done now, so that all students will get the early diagnosis and specialized programs they need.
“Teachers are not getting the training. It’s surprising how many still don’t know what it is,” said Deadra Rosenberg, president of the New Jersey chapter of the International Dyslexia Association and director of education at the Newgrange School in Hamilton Township, Mercer County, which specializes in teaching students with dyslexia. The school’s director, Gordon Sherman, serves on the state task force.
Marjorie E. Madden, associate professor of language, literacy and special education at Rowan University, said they often see children in the Rowan reading clinic who present as being dyslexic but have not been given that specific diagnosis. She said in an email that often children are classified with a specific learning disability but then there is no follow-up as to what exactly the disability is.
Ravelli said that’s why parents and teachers must become more informed themselves.
Lisa Glaser Whitley, of Linwood, said her son, Griffith, 9, showed signs of dyslexia in preschool, and was classified with a visual and auditory disability. But she did research and got private evaluations on her own to get the specific diagnosis of dyslexia. Now in third grade, Griffith now gets extra tutoring at the Children’s Learning Center in Northfield, one of five dyslexia clinics in New Jersey organized by the Scottish Rite Masons, which provides free tutoring using the proven Orton-Gillingham reading method. The clinics also train teachers through Fairleigh Dickinson University.
“The child study team at Seaview School (in Linwood) has been great,” Whitley said. “But there does seem to be a hesitancy to actually use the word dyslexia.”
Mary Farrell, director of the Center for Dyslexia Studies at FDU, said they are training more teachers every year, but still have openings for the fall in the clinics in Northfield and Burlington. Teachers are trained for free and earn graduate credits from FDU, and they also work with students while they train.
“Up north we are swamped with applications,” Farrell said. “But Orton-Gillingham is still not as well-known in the southern part of the state. Most reading programs target the majority of students. But 80 percent of children diagnosed with a learning disability have primarily a problem with reading and need a specialized program.”
Whitley said since attending the clinic, her son’s reading and confidence have improved dramatically.
“I used Samantha as the model for my son,” Whitley said. “He knows it’s harder for him to read, and he has to work at it more. But at least now he knows he’s not dumb. It’s just the way his brain works.”
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