Legislation Promises Help for Dyslexic Kids in New Jersey Schools

Early screening, more training, and better identification of dyslexia among recommendations of state task force

In 2005, an Ocean City mother started asking legislators, educators, and other parents to help address what she saw as the failure of New Jersey public schools to help children with dyslexia — starting with her daughter.

Eight years later, Beth Ravelli has seen a state reading-disabilities task force created, a host of recommendations completed, and a half-dozen bills submitted to transform them into law.

The next challenge, she said, is getting the legislation heard and passed. “It’s been a long road,” Ravelli said this weekend, for both mother and daughter.

The bills were filed last month by state Sen. Jeff Van Drew and Assemblyman Nelson Albano, both Cape May County Democrats. They would require schools to conduct early screenings for dyslexia and other reading disabilities, train teachers in serving these students, and specifically define dyslexia as a reading disability in school regulations.

The bills mirror the recommendations of the Reading Disabilities Task Force that was created in 2010, in part as a response to Ravelli’s push and a growing awareness that such disabilities often go undetected and unaddressed.

Dyslexia isn’t new. Some estimate that as many as 80 percent of all students classified for special education have some sort of language disability. But experts said dyslexia – defined as a specific difficulty in processing words and sounds — is often lumped together with other learning disabilities and not always addressed with programs that can make a big difference in helping students overcome it.

“This has been going on for at least 20 years, if not longer,” said Gordon Sherman, a past president of the International Dyslexia Association and director of the New Grange School in New Jersey. “There is now lots of good research in place.”

The task force completed its work in August, with six recommendations, and its report was formally submitted to Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature in December.

“What we have in the document is very practical,” said Sherman, who served on the task force. “It’s not pie in the sky, and any school with good leadership can use it.”

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf praised the task force and its report in his letter to the governor and legislators, but said the proposals would need more review.

“The Department will consider these recommendations, in light of cost constraints and other potential complications, and move forward with implementation where appropriate,” his letter read.

“The timely identification and effective management of reading disabilities is critical in effectively supporting the success of these children and in ensuring that all students in New Jersey are college- and career-ready,” Cerf wrote.

With a nudge from Ravelli and other advocates, Van Drew and Albano have moved ahead without the administration, saying some of the measures would not be costly and could make a difference immediately.

Ravelli said she has no sense that the administration will oppose any of the recommendations, since the task force’s chairperson was the DOE’s language arts director, Mary Jane Kurabinski.

But she also didn’t want to wait for the administration. “This has been sitting on their desk since August, so we went ahead and did our own bills,” she said.

Ravelli said that the two bills that require early screening and add a specific definition of dyslexia to special education code would barely cost any money.

“Those are the two I am rooting for,” she said. “They will cost the least, and could be implemented the fastest.”

Van Drew said the bills first need to be posted in their respective legislative committees, and he will speak with their chairpersons in the coming weeks. The senator said the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has also asked to meet with hium.

The senator said he expects there may be some resistance from districts, as well as the administration, over costs of some of the other measures, as well as how best to approach the issue in general. Other recommendations that could carry a price tag would require training for teachers both before they enter the classroom and once on the job.

“There will be pushback to get this passed, but we’ll continue to push ourselves,” Van Drew said.

In the meantime, a new advocacy group — called Decoding Dyslexia NJ — has been organized to press for both policy and awareness, and its leaders are encouraged by the momentum. The group has a Facebook page with more than 700 followers.

“The bills have been introduced, have bill numbers, and now are just awaiting traction in committee,” said Liz Barnes, a founding parent and a Plumsted mother of an 11-year girl with dyslexia. “That’s a whole lot more than we had a year ago.”

Barnes said that as a parent, just having dyslexia defined in code would be critical. It is currently included in the broader classification of “specific learning disabilities.”

“If we get it in there, schools can’t tell us it doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “Something like that gets in there, it changes the whole conversation.”

Ravelli said that her daughter Samantha has made significant progress over the past eight years, when when she was an elementary school student seeking help overcoming her reading difficulties.

The family ended up moving to Ocean City, where the schools were using a multisensory strategy that helped the young girl. Samantha is now a sophomore in high school and doesn’t even remember that she ever struggled with reading at all, her mother said.

“She has her whole life ahead of her because of reading. And she didn’t have that in 2005,” Ravelli said.