Ocean City woman’s fight for dyslexia screening is almost won

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New Jersey Assembly passes final bill, heads to Senate for approval

Samantha Ravelli, standing with Assemblyman Nelson Albano, pushes the button indicating Albano's support for a series of dyslexia-related bills earlier this summer. Samantha Ravelli, standing with Assemblyman Nelson Albano, pushes the button indicating Albano's support for a series of dyslexia-related bills earlier this summer.

OCEAN CITY — Beth Ravelli worried as she and her daughter Samantha waited for hours for the State Assembly to pass the last of four bills she encouraged concerning dyslexia in Trenton Thursday, Dec. 19.

The end-of-the-year session went on for hours, so long that the Ravellis had to return to their Ocean City home before the vote took place so Samantha, a junior at Ocean City High School, could prepare for school the following day.

But Ravelli need not have worried. The Assembly unanimously approved the bill requiring that every child be screened for dyslexia in first grade.

“It’s so exciting,” Ravelli said. “We were not sure if it was going to pass or not, and we didn’t want to have to start over in a new session. Now, we have one more step to go.”

The Senate passed the bill once, she said, but in a different form. That bill had students to be tested in kindergarten. The new bill requires that students who are exhibiting signs of dyslexia or other reading disabilities in first grade be tested, and Ravelli does not expect any problems with the Senate passing the modified bill. The Senate meets again Jan. 9 and 13.

“The Senate should be quick,” she said.

The screening bill, which also requires that students moving into New Jersey school districts without a record of being previously screened be tested, was the missing puzzle piece in a package of legislation aimed at helping students with dyslexia. If signed into law by the governor, it will go into effect in the 2014-2015 school year.

“The legislators did not like the idea of having to test every person,” Ravelli said, adding that it became a cost issue.

The bill was sent back to the appropriations committee and brought forward again this month.

“To pass something in the lame duck session is hard to do, we are quite relieved,” she said.

Dyslexia is most commonly characterized by difficulties with learning how to “decode” words, to spell, and to read accurately and fluently. Many individuals with dyslexic symptoms involving reading, writing and spelling also exhibit symptoms in other areas such as weak short-term memory and organizational skills and problems processing spoken language.

“People with dyslexia learn differently,” Ravelli said.

Samantha Ravelli was in third grade and 7 years old when her mother began advocating for her daughter and others with dyslexia.

“Sammie was a little girl when we started this journey,” she said. “Now she’s 16 and she’s driving. She knows what she’s doing and she knows what she wants. She wanted to see this through, to see the last bill passed.”

Recently, a mother shared with Ravelli that thanks to the publicity surrounding Samantha and the dyslexia bills, it took her just one week to get her child diagnosed.

“It makes you feel really good. That’s what it’s all about,” Ravelli said. “Families should not have to spend thousands of dollars to have their children evaluated. If the child cannot read, they need help.”

After Samantha was diagnosed, school officials informed Ravelli, who lived in Dorothy at the time, that they did not have the tools to help her daughter. Ravelli discovered that the Ocean City School District offered the Wilson Reading program, so the family bought a condominium in Ocean City and moved to the shore.

“I had a mentor, and her name was Ronee Groff, she taught me everything,” Ravelli said. 

The most important thing, she said, was learning how to be an advocate for her daughter.

“You have to devote your life, everything you have to this,” she said. “It’s not easy. No parent should have to do this. Ronee warned me that it would take a toll. Eight years was a long time for me, but it’s a lifetime for Sammie.”

Ravelli contacted Assemblyman Nelson Albano for help. With the help of Albano and state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, a reading disabilities task force was created. Ravelli was given a seat at the table. Legislators wrote four bills, and three of them passed earlier this year.

The first three dyslexia bills passed require the New Jersey Department of Education to incorporate the International Dyslexia Association definition of dyslexia into special education regulations and provide professional development opportunities related to reading disabilities; and mandate certain school district personnel annually compete two hours of professional development related to reading disabilities.

Gov. Chris Christie signed the bills on Aug. 9.

Albano, who lost a re-election bid in November and will leave the Assembly next month, introduced this fourth bill in Ravelli’s honor.

“Assemblyman Albano has been with us through all these years. We wanted to be there for him, to see this through,” Ravelli said. “Now the help is there. They can diagnose a child and point them in the right direction. No one will have to be alone the way we were.”

Samantha, Ravelli noted, became the face of dyslexia in New Jersey. While it’s heartwarming now, removed from the early difficulties, Ravelli said the moment is bittersweet. She’s excited, but it was a long time coming.
“It was hell,” Ravelli said of her journey. “You’re talking about a child, a child learning to read. You shouldn’t have to go through hell to learn how to read.”

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