Seven years after beginning her crusade to raise awareness of dyslexia and other reading disabilities, Beth Ravelli of Ocean City is once again ready to fight for laws to help all children learn to read and write.
But this time she will not be alone.
Armed with five new bills in the state Legislature, a statewide coalition of parents and support groups is planning to blitz legislators in an effort to get the recognition and support for reading disabilities they say many districts still do not recognize or treat.
“I’m not by myself this time,” said Ravelli, who with her daughter, Samantha, now 15, testified before the Assembly Education Committee and successfully fought for the formation of a state Reading Disabilities Task Force. “Parents don’t expect the Department of Education to do it alone. We need legislation.”
Ravelli served on the task force along with Assemblymen Nelson Albano and Matthew Milam and Sen. Jeff Van Drew, all D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic. The three sponsored the bills creating the task force, and are now sponsoring five bills and one resolution to implement its recommendations.
Those recommendations include putting dyslexia in the state special education code, requiring that all children be screened in kindergarten, and requiring that all teachers be trained and tested on reading instruction.
The task force report notes that 85 percent of children who get special education services have problems with language and reading and many are never properly diagnosed and do not receive the proper services.
N.J. Department of Education data show that statewide in 2011 almost 16 percent of all students, or about 218,000 children, received special education services, including more than 77,000 classified with a specific learning disability.
The task force filed its report with the Department of Education in August, but it was not submitted to the governor and state legislature until Dec. 21.
In a letter accompanying the report, Education Commissioner Chris Cerf called the recommendations thoughtful and said a discussion of them is necessary. He said the department will consider the recommendations in light of cost constraints and other potential complications and would move forward with implementation as appropriate. A department spokeswoman said he would have no comment beyond what was in the letter.
Albano pre-filed the bills for the 2013 legislative session on Dec. 13. He said he hopes to have them heard quickly by the Assembly Education Committee.
“We’ve been working on this for seven years,” Albano said. “I don’t want to waste any more time. I’ve met with Department of Education officials many times, and I don’t think they will do this on their own. But I have seen first hand what is needed to help these children.”
In 2005, Samantha Ravelli was a charming third grader who could not read when The Press of Atlantic City first wrote about her struggle to overcome severe dyslexia.
The New Jersey Education Code does not specifically recognize dyslexia, but groups it in the “specific learning disability” category. As a result Samantha did not get specific programs targeted to dyslexia in school and after extensive research and testing her mother began paying for private tutoring in the Orton-Gillingham multi-sensory reading method proven to work with dyslexia.
The Ravellis moved to Ocean City in 2006 because the school district there uses the research-based Wilson reading system beginning at the Primary School for all students. Samantha got extra help at the Intermediate School, learned to read and has thrived and adapted to life with dyslexia.
Now a sophomore at Ocean City High School, she takes sign language as her second language, just passed the written test to get her driver’s license, and finished reading one of the “Pretty Little Liars” series of books on the Kindle e-reader she got for Christmas.
“I don’t want people to forget about reading,” she said in an email. “I really didn’t want to move. I had a lot of friends (at my old school). I was lucky to have great teachers and had a great experience in Ocean City. But I shouldn’t have had to move.”
Ocean City Superintendent Kathleen Taylor said the Wilson program does work, and the district also offers other levels of support based on student need.
Founders of support groups like Decoding Dyslexia and CHILD (Children Having Individual Learning Differences) in Essex County said Ravelli’s work helped spur organized efforts statewide to raise awareness and improve services.
Liz Barnes, of Plumsted Township in Ocean County, a founder of Decoding Dyslexia and mother of an 11-year-old with dyslexia, said the bill adding the definition of dyslexia is crucial because there are still educators who will deny it exists, despite the research.
“You read the stories on our Facebook page and it breaks your heart,” she said. “Districts will say they are doing a good job, but the child still can’t read. The children are made to feel they are stupid.”
Education lawyer Norma Francullo of Verona in Essex County, a founder of CHILD said she paid for private tutors for her twins with dyslexia who are now successful high school students.
“For me, it was easier to pay myself than fight the district, but not everyone can do that,” she said.
Jane Peltonen, of Brigantine, a retired teacher who served on the task force, said she has been stunned by resistance from some educators who still think what they are doing is good enough.
“Parents are hitting a brick wall in the schools,” she said. “It’s just been way too long for us to be so ignorant and naive.”
New research and brain scans have shown how dyslexics process language differently, but can learn to read using special methods. Gordon Sherman, executive director of the Newgrange School in Princeton, past president of the International Dyslexia Society and a member of the state task force said New Jersey could become a role model for the nation.
“We are lucky to have legislators who realize how important this is,” he said.
He said many teaching colleges have not caught up with the research so new teachers are still unaware of the issue.
Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck has a Center for Dyslexia Studies and offers teacher training program in the Orton-Gillingham system. The college partners with the Scottish Rite Masons of New Jersey in offering free tutoring for children at Masonic Learning Centers, including one in Northfield, but there area often waiting lists to get in.
Some parents have been successful in getting their children sent to private schools like the Cambridge School in Pennington or the Newgrange school in Princeton.
Advocates say while the costs of implementing the bills could be a challenge, early and effective intervention would be cheaper in the long run than having to provide long-term support for children who never learn to adequately read or write.
Ravelli and Albano hope the work done over the last seven years will help get the laws passed quickly.
“The word is getting out this time,” Ravelli said.