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Girl's wish: N.J. study of reading disorders

The stuff on Samantha Ravelli's holiday wish list was pretty much standard fare for a 12-year-old. A digital camera, a watch, a laptop.

The stuff on Samantha Ravelli's holiday wish list was pretty much standard fare for a 12-year-old. A digital camera, a watch, a laptop.

Her number-one wish, however, was in a class of its own.

She wants Gov. Corzine to sign her bill.

"I want to help other children," she said.

The Ocean City, N.J., seventh grader and her mother, Beth, have been working the last few years to pass a law that would create a task force to better ensure that reading-disabled children like Samantha get the help they need.

The Senate passed her bill Dec. 10; the Assembly approved it in February. Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), a sponsor, said the Assembly needed to approve some changes before the measure went to the governor's desk.

Corzine has not gone on record about the bill. If he does not sign it by the end of the legislative session in January, the process will have to start over.

A lot of people are keeping their fingers crossed, especially Samantha.

If she gets her bill, it won't be the first obstacle she's overcome.

"My daughter was never supposed to read," her mother said.

In first grade, Samantha received a diagnosis of severe dyslexia. She was living in Dorothy in Atlantic County, and her school had the resources to offer her only additional reading help and speech therapy, Beth Ravelli said.

So Ravelli went on a search for a program that could help Samantha learn to read. For about a year and a half, she took Samantha twice a week to the Cooper Learning Center in Voorhees. There, she was introduced to a multisensory program from Wilson Language Training that teaches word decoding and reading. Samantha made progress, but the cost was $300 a month.

"The Cooper Learning Center was phenomenal, but I couldn't afford to keep paying that," said Ravelli, who at the time was not employed. Her husband, John, is a manager with a paving-materials company.

The Ravellis also learned of a private school for dyslexic children, but it was beyond their means.

In time, Beth Ravelli learned that Ocean City public schools were using the Wilson program. Ocean City, however, was too far a commute for her husband. The family bought a second home in Ocean City so Samantha could go to school there. Samantha and sister Roseann, 14, live there with their mother, and the family is together on the weekends.

The program clicked with Samantha. Now, she's an honor student who still gets help managing her dyslexia but loves reading as well as cheerleading.

She has her own Web site,, to reach other people with learning disabilities.

When it looked at last as if things would turn out all right for Samantha, neither she nor her mother was content to walk away from the issue.

"She said to me, 'Can I help other people? I want to help kids like me,' " Ravelli said.

So they reached out to legislators. Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D., Cape May) was the first to take up their cause. Since then, Samantha, usually shy, has spoken before the Legislature and school groups to raise awareness of learning disabilities.

"Sammie Ravelli is just a wonderful example of advocacy," said Van Drew, whose vote Samantha cast on the day the Senate approved her bill. He provided the note to excuse Samantha and her sister from school.

The bill calls for a 13-member task force to explore the best methods of diagnosing and dealing with reading disabilities. According to the bill, 85 percent of children who receive special-education services have language and reading deficits, but many reading disabilities are never properly diagnosed and students do not receive the programs that can help them.

A spokesman for the state Department of Education said the agency had an initiative to identify and educate students with reading disabilities.

"If future studies are conducted, we will incorporate new information that could be helpful in our efforts," the spokesman, Richard Vespucci, wrote in an e-mail.

But psychologist Richard Selznick, director of the Cooper Learning Center, said the response to reading difficulties varied.

"There is a great deal of inconsistency from school to school," said Selznick, who evaluated Samantha. "Being classified doesn't mean a child will automatically get the methods that are the most effective."

Also, a large number of children have difficulties but are not deemed to need special education. "They are not viewed as having a significant-enough problem, yet they are struggling," Selznick said.

Ravelli said she remained incredulous that state law did not identify dyslexia, which in her daughter's case required specialized teaching to manage, as a separate disability. It is lumped with brain injury and other learning problems as a "specific learning disability."

"That's my next law," she said.

But now the focus is on the task-force bill.

"If Gov. Corzine signs this bill, he will be helping so many children," Ravelli said.

Not to mention making one girl very happy.

"She's said, 'We've worked so hard,' " her mother said. "She won't rest until he signs it."