New laws to get more help for children with reading disabilities have taken effect, but parents may see few changes in their child's school this year.
School district officials are waiting for the state Department of Education to provide regulations and guidelines for how to implement the new laws. A bill that would require all children be tested for potential reading disorders did not pass the Assembly and is being revised.
Advocates for children with disabilities said districts could start meeting the law's requirements now. But some said parents might still struggle to get a proper diagnosis and services for their children.
"School districts don't have to wait for the state," said Liz Barnes, of Plumsted Township, a parent and founder of Decoding Dyslexia in New Jersey. She said that because October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, there is a lot of information online.
The new laws, approved this summer, require teachers to get two hours of training each year in dyslexia and other reading disorders, and require the state to provide such training. The department must also add the International Dyslexia Association's definition of dyslexia into state education regulations so students with that language-processing disorder can get access to programs most likely to be effective in teaching them to read.
A third bill that would require all children be tested by the end of first grade is still in the Legislature and will likely be revised.
State Department of Education spokesman Richard Vespucci said the department was gathering input from stakeholders, including local school leaders, to determine who is best to help them implement the new law, but there is no specific timetable to provide that guidance.
There has been some progress in the teacher training. Patricia Weeks, executive director of the Southern Regional Institute at Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township, said the institute was developing programs that would meet the training requirement and hoped to have them ready by late fall and available throughout the school year. She said a number of districts in South Jersey had contacted the institute about training.
But others question whether the training alone will make a difference without core changes in how schools test and serve children with reading disorders.
"The advocacy has been very strong in terms of shining a bright light on dyslexia and kids not getting services," said Peggy Kinsell, director of public policy for the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, or SPAN. "But I am not sure (the laws) are going to be a big change agent and what parents are actually going to get from this. It could open the door and get students better access to services, but we just don't know."
Special-education and reading-disabilities consultant Howard Margolis, of Voorhees, said state special-education code already requires that children get the services they need, but some districts just don't do a good job in providing them. He is concerned that the new laws could lead to more extensive and expensive testing of students, making districts even more likely to avoid diagnosing a child as dyslexic.
"I agree children are falling through the cracks," he said. "I'm just afraid this will have unintended consequences."
He said teachers did need more and better training in reading instruction and special education so they could differentiate between children who might just be a little behind from children who have an actual language-processing disorder and must be taught differently. One child might catch up using a program such as Reading Recovery, while that might not be enough for a child with severe dyslexia.
"No program works with every child," Margolis said, agreeing it would be like giving every person diagnosed with cancer the same exact treatment.
"You have to try different approaches," he said. "And then you graph the child's progress. You don't just leave them stagnating in the same program for a year."
One hurdle still remaining is the required testing. The longer students go without being identified, the more difficult it is for them to make up that lost time. The original recommendation from a state task force on reading disabilities was to test all children by the end of kindergarten.
School districts balked at the potential cost, and that bill stalled in the Assembly. A Senate bill passed that would give districts until the end of first grade to test, but a compromise is still being developed that would require approval from both houses.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said one proposal would expand the testing period from mid-kindergarten to the middle of second grade, and only require it of students who are showing some signs of a problem.
But advocates said schools were already supposed to be testing those students and still too many fall through the cracks.
"My concern is that all kids are not being identified," said Ronee Groff, of Egg Harbor Township, a learning-disabilities consultant and former member of the Atlantic County Special Services School District Board of Education.
Van Drew said enforcement would be key. He said he hoped to bring a compromise bill to the Legislature before the end of the year.
Beth Ravelli, the Ocean City mother whose decade-long fight to get services for her daughter, Samantha, led to the new laws, said she understood the need for compromise in light of testing costs. She just wants to be sure no child is overlooked.
"I don't want to take another year to do this, or need another task force," she said. She said she did ask the Ocean City School District if she could now have her daughter formally identified as having dyslexia, and they said yes. But Samantha is already in high school and getting the help she needs to be successful, so the change would be largely symbolic.
An unedited excerpt of a documentary about the Ravellis has been posted by filmmaker Matthew Badger on his Facebook page for the Lily Sarah Grace Fund, a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting the arts in education.
"I still tell people, you have to get answers yourself, you can't rely on the district or the state," Ravelli said. "But we are not going to let up on the pressure to get the bill passed and enforced."
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READING DISABILITY LAWS
•Require the state Department of Education to provide professional-development opportunities related to reading disabilities; require teachers to annually complete two hours of professional development related to reading disabilities.
•Direct the state Board of Education to incorporate the International Dyslexia Association's definition of dyslexia into special-education regulations.
•A joint resolution urges the state Board of Education to develop an endorsement to the certificate for teachers of students with reading disabilities to include dyslexia.
STILL PENDING: A bill requiring all students be tested for a reading disability by the end of first grade.