New Jersey first-graders to be screened for dyslexia

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OCEAN CITY – Last week, Gov. Chris Christie made it official; every child in New Jersey must be screened for dyslexia and other learning problems in first grade.

It marks the end of a nine-year journey for local resident Beth Ravelli and her 16-year-old, severely dyslexic daughter, Samantha, who successfully lobbied legislators to do something to help children affected by reading disabilities.

“I’m a little overwhelmed,” Beth Ravelli said.

On Thursday, Jan. 9, the New Jersey Senate unanimously approved the bill. This was about 20 days after the bill was unanimously approved by the Assembly.

This is the last of four bills concerning dyslexia that have made their way through the state legislature over the last several years.

The “Roadmap to Dyslexia” that Ravelli and her daughter created so long ago - and the notoriety it generated - has garnered the duo, and the Ocean City school district, notoriety across the nation. Ravelli said she has received calls from anxious parents and this weekend, from representatives of the Educational Broadcasting System in South Korea.

“They are coming from South Korea to talk to us in February,” she said, adding that the officials want to learn as much as possible about dyslexia so they can help people in their nation. “Just as many people have dyslexia in South Korea as have it in the United States. They told me now that America is doing something about it, they want to do something about it, too. It’s very exciting.” 

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.

The new law, which will go into effect in the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, means that every child diagnosed with dyslexia will receive help, and Ravelli said that warms her heart.

Ocean City Superintendent Kathleen Taylor said the Wilson reading program, which helped Samantha Ravelli as a dyslexic student in Ocean City, was in place when she started working in the district nearly a decade ago.

“We have been committed to the not just the Wilson program, but reading and learning to read,” Taylor said. “We are committed to addressing difficulties, in every grade, not just the primary school.

She said that students don’t just need to learn to read, they need to be able to read to learn.

“Learning to read is just the first step,” she said. “As they progress, the reading material becomes more complex, sophisticated and difficult. We, as teachers, have to continually teach students how to read more complex, sophisticated text, whether it be a science journal, social studies, primary source document, technical reading, or how to perform a task for an engineering course, and that includes reading materials online.”

Taylor said Samantha Ravelli will be honored at a February school board meeting.

“She persevered. She believed in herself,” Taylor said.

The Ravelli family, she said, worked within the system to effect change.
“That’s what leaders do,” she said, of Samantha. “Think about all of the leadership skills she learned; how to make a difference. That you can do that, no matter your age, you can contribute to your community, your state and make a difference nationwide. How often does that happen to a child? Not too often. It’s incredible and we are all very, very proud of Samantha.”

Taylor said the district brought in two reading specialists through federal Title I funding this year.

“That is my commitment to how important this is,” she said.

Dyslexia affects the whole family, Beth Ravelli said.

“We each had a part in helping Sammie along the way,” she said, adding that her daughter deserves a lot of credit.
“I’m really proud of Sammie,” Ravelli said. “Although I was her voice, Sammie had to do all the hard work. She had to prove to everyone that if you teach children in the way that they understand, they will succeed and become a contributing member of society.”

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