A New Way to Read

With fewer than three months on the job, Duval County Public Schools’ new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, went public with personal information that illuminated his education policy priorities. Vitti told First Coast News anchor Jeannie Blaylock about his battle with dyslexia — a struggle that at least one of his children has inherited. The revelation sparked overwhelmingly positive feedback on the Web among advocates for people with dyslexia. According to his wife, Rachel Vitti, the Blaylock video went viral. And while his disclosure received a quieter reception locally, his dyslexia — and that of his oldest son, Lorenzo — impact his career in a manner that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Already, Vitti and his executive director for exceptional education, Mason Davis, have taken steps to begin training teachers in multisensory approaches to teaching reading. Dyslexia can be mitigated when children who have it not only <> letters and words, Davis said, but also when they hear, pronounce and touch the concepts being taught.

“It’s really best practices for all children,” Davis said.

Multisensory approaches can be simple, the superintendent added, giving the example of Lorenzo learning about the letter “D.” “He needs to write ‘D’ with his finger. That activates the neurons that don’t naturally click.”

When Vitti pitched his plan to train teachers in multisensory techniques at a school board committee meeting, he noted that failing to implement that approach was a disservice to children, including his own son.

“It’s personal,” Vitti said. “When I go out to schools, when I see kids … I see me.”

The man with a doctorate from Harvard was once a child who struggled in school.

“I was bright as a kid, but I didn’t think I was bright,” he said.

“I sweated to death,” he added, recalling times in elementary school when students were asked to take turns reading aloud. “I’d be looking at the clock, thinking maybe we’d run out of time before my turn.”

The nervous clock-watcher grew up to help lead the Miami-Dade school district to win a coveted national prize for school improvement. Vitti was assistant superintendent and chief academic officer in 2011 when Miami-Dade landed among the top tier of urban districts in both fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores.

The Broad Foundation named Miami-Dade “most improved” in 2012 for outstanding performance among Hispanic students in particular, citing a 14 percent increase in the graduation rate for both black and Hispanic students. Broad awarded the district more than $500,000 in scholarships.

These accomplishments don’t surprise Rachel Vitti, who says her husband is a “great thinker who has found his accommodations.”

“Dictation, secretaries — these are accommodations,” she said. A warrior-mother who has studied dyslexia, she ticked off a list of highly successful people who have the disorder: Walt Disney, Whoopi Goldberg, Charles Schwab.


Learning to Be Smart

Vitti said he was a slow reader and often mispronounced words.

“The kids would laugh at me,” he shared.

Asked how he managed to get through school, he said, “I was polite. I wasn’t a troublemaker, and there wasn’t something called standardized testing.”

“Athletics was my escape,” he added. As he made his way through high school, though, he experienced a remarkable transformation: The more complex school became, the better Vitti performed.

“I started to come alive,” he said, “in classes where I could debate.” The shift from mere rote learning to subjects where he could apply his critical thinking skills woke him up to the possibility that he could be smart, after all.

“I was interested in politics, which always seemed to confuse people,” he said, grinning. Vitti’s own experiences anchor his belief that classroom learning should “link to what students’ interests are.”

Though he always suspected he might have the disorder, the official diagnosis of dyslexia didn’t come until he was well into college. By that time, however, Vitti’s coping strategies had already begun to emerge.

“I fell in love with words,” Vitti said. “I’d take every word I didn’t know — from newspapers from classes — and I’d take a Post-it Note. Then I’d look it up in the dictionary and write the phonetic spelling and write all the definitions. And that’s how I built my vocabulary.”

Later, he discovered speaking dictionaries. The child who was laughed at in reading class became the young man with superior verbal scores on his graduate school board exams — superior enough to earn not only entry into Harvard’s doctoral program, but the presidential scholarship as well.

“That was elbow grease,” Vitti said. “The work ethic I saw in my mother, my grandmother, my uncle — I applied it to my studies. I spent hours laboring through.”

He insists that contrary to prevailing American perceptions, good learners aren’t born, they’re made. In cultures where children appear smarter, it’s because they’re conditioned to work hard from an early age, he said.


Decoding Sounds and Symbols

People with dyslexia have a neurological difference, and it’s largely genetic. Dyslexia interferes with the brain’s ability to decode phonemic sounds from written language, and sometimes those processing problems extend to mathematical representations as well. Dyslexia is estimated to affect between 5 and 20 percent of the population. The Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia reports that once a standardized definition of the disorder was developed, the National Institutes of Health estimate grew to 17 percent. Learning Ally, a nonprofit organization that maintains an audio library, uses the 20 percent figure. On April 16, Learning Ally launched a “1 in 5” public service announcement campaign to promote awareness of dyslexia.

According to Davis, about 5,500 of the district’s 125,000 students have a specific learning disability, which is the category under which dyslexia falls for purposes of federal law. “Most of those [5,500] students have dyslexia,” he said.

Adult literacy proponents estimate that between 50 percent and 80 percent of adults who seek reading classes have a learning disability, according to Sharon Jaskula of Learn to Read Jacksonville. Though no precise measures of Jacksonville’s literacy rate have ever been made, the last local study that spotlighted literacy was conducted in 1993. It estimated that 47 percent of the city’s adults were functionally illiterate — or unable to read above a fourth-grade level.

“We are all so excited that Dr. Vitti recognizes the importance of teaching decoding — and teaching it well — before expecting children to comprehend challenging texts,” Jaskula said in an email. “Nearly every adult who walks into our programs benefits from this type of instruction — imagine if they had been exposed to it earlier.”

Jaskula echoed Vitti’s thoughts on teaching literacy. “It’s not just about me,” he insisted. ”It’s about what the research says.”


The Quicker Picker-upper

When asked about how it feels to have a brain difference, 9-year-old Lorenzo Vitti didn’t miss a beat. “The best thing about it is my mother says I can pick things up better than other people can,” the aspiring tackle-football player said.

“He’s a perceptive kid,” his mother said. “Lorenzo has a very good recollection of his own experiences. His goal is to find connections and go from there.” Those connections are what make the synapses in a child’s brain “pop,” Rachel Vitti said.

The worst thing, Lorenzo said, is having to read passages and answer questions about things like “main idea.”

His favorite subjects are recess, PE and science. It’s the experiments Lorenzo likes best about science, “but we barely do that,” he lamented.


‘I’m Not Some Crazy Parent’

Despite her husband’s meteoric rise from Bronx high school teacher to Harvard graduate to Florida Department of Education bureau chief and beyond, Rachel Vitti said her oldest son’s educational path in Florida has not been easy.

“They had great services in Massachusetts,” she said, “but Florida didn’t have wonderful early child services.”

She first suspected that Lorenzo might need special attention when he skipped crawling and went straight to walking at age eight months. “He knew if he could stand, he could go,” she said.

A regular visitor to babycenter.com, Vitti kept track of developmental milestones. She learned that skipping the crawling stage might be an indication of future language problems. Lorenzo, who now shows no speaking problems, took speech and language therapy sessions three times a week in Massachusetts.

The family’s experience with Florida’s educational services, however, was different. By the time Lorenzo finished kindergarten without mastering his alphabet sounds, Rachel Vitti became concerned about dyslexia.

“As a teacher, I knew he should have been developing automaticity,” she said. School personnel in Tallahassee told her that her son was fine. “And I’d say, ‘no, no, there’s a bigger issue.’ ”

Rachel Vitti’s story sounds familiar to Sandy Stallings, whose daughter has dyslexia and attends a high school in Duval County.

“We’ve had to fight the system along the way. Had we not had the resources to have her privately tested, she would have failed,” Stallings said. “Even in fourth grade, they [Duval County] wouldn’t test her, even though the teacher recommended it.”

Davis understands why parents often get upset with the exceptional education process. “They should be angry,” he said.

“Systematically, we looked at the IEP [Individual Education Plan] as a piece of paper.” The goal, he said, is to look at each IEP as a “child who needs resources.”

Davis is not shy about sharing how poorly Duval County has served exceptional students. While the district met all Florida DOE <> indicators for serving exceptional children, that is, the paperwork requirements, it met zero <> indicators for those children. In other words, doing the paperwork didn’t help the children make the gains they needed to make.

Rachel Vitti knows the frustration of parents who are ignored or who are shut out of conversations about their children’s special needs.

“I kept hearing he was well-behaved, that he wanted to learn.”

She explained that these statements have nothing to do with whether a child has a learning disability. Neither does being gifted, as Lorenzo is. The couple paid for a private therapist to work with him when Nikolai Vitti was employed by the Florida Department of Education in Tallahassee.

It wasn’t until their son entered second grade, after the couple relocated to Miami, that Rachel Vitti’s suspicions were validated by a teacher who also detected something different about Lorenzo.

“I said, ‘Thanks for recognizing that I’m not some crazy parent,’ ” she recalled.

Lorenzo’s second-grade year was the Vitti family’s first experience with keeping data and monitoring progress for their son. Like many mothers before her, Rachel Vitti spent hours doing research and working on Lorenzo’s IEP goals with her child’s school. Asked if her husband — then a high-ranking district official in Miami — understood the extent of the service gap that can exist between the law and what schools are willing to do, she said, “It was an evolution.”

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” she added. “Had we not gone through this IEP process, he might have eventually figured it out — but [now] he has firsthand knowledge.”

Though Rachel Vitti won’t talk about the details of obtaining services for her son here in Jacksonville, she did share that she made phone calls on Lorenzo’s behalf as soon as it was apparent that the family might move here. Using her maiden name, she found it difficult to get her questions about DCPS’ exceptional education services answered.

“It was … inefficient,” she said, searching for the most diplomatic word. “As a regular mom calling about services for my child, it was inefficient.”

Stallings, however, was blunt about her daughter’s luck with DCPS’ exceptional education services.

“They tried to do away with her accommodations because she was succeeding,” she said. “Isn’t that the whole point of accommodations — for children to succeed? They don’t understand that she works harder.”

An experienced social services practitioner who has worked in the juvenile justice system, Stallings has seen the consequences of allowing children to fail.

“Once you tell children they’re failures, that’s another set of problems you’re creating,” she said. A lot of the kids she saw on probation or parole were probably gifted, she said, “but their educational needs weren’t addressed.” Stallings said she is very thankful for the teachers and exceptional education coordinators who have helped her daughter along the way.


‘A Culture of Compliance’

“The key is to focus on the deficiency, and to provide the right interventions,” Superintendent Vitti said. “There are some teachers who understand it, but it’s not happening on a systemic level.”

Vitti and Davis agree that DCPS currently suffers from “a culture of compliance,” in its approach to both exceptional and non-exceptional students.

“Duval is fixated and obsessed with benchmarks,” Vitti said. When testing takes over, he explained, the remedy offered tends to relate to the test, instead of to the child’s individual needs. But no matter how many exercises you give a child to master a single concept on a test, like “main idea,” he said, if the child can’t read, it won’t help.

“Everyone wants the quick fix and the silver bullet, but the way to create better readers is to go deeper,” the superintendent said.

“Interventions are not strong at the K through 2 level,” he told school board members on March 14. He said that the district would be “putting children in harm’s way” by providing inadequate approaches to addressing students’ individual reading deficiencies. Vitti also acknowledged that the district’s deficits in serving dyslexic students could result in more lawsuits.

Vitti’s plan is, first, to have Hope Haven practitioners directly serve a pilot group of 120 students who have been identified as struggling readers. This direct, multisensory instruction will take place in under-enrolled schools yet to be determined. Second, Hope Haven will train teachers in multisensory approaches to teaching reading. The project will cost $150,000. Vitti and Davis expect the district to build its own capacity to train teachers without Hope Haven’s assistance within a year and a half.

“It’s our job as a district to provide those types of supports to the teachers,” Davis said, “because they’re the ones who see the kid every day.” The goal is for all children to be exposed to a multisensory curriculum during the early grades.


Hope for the Future

Stallings said she believes the Hope Haven plan is mostly good news.

“I hope that teachers will have better training … that accommodations will be easier to get. And technology is better now. That helps.”

Stallings and Rachel Vitti both sing the praises of Learning Ally, a company that offers books with accompanying audio recordings. Lorenzo also benefits from the “Reading To Go” program for the iPad, which highlights words as he reads, and has an audio component as well.

But Stallings said she worries about an inevitable shift from a multisensory curriculum in the early grades to books and written work in later grades.

The answer to Stallings’ concern might be found in a Vitti family anecdote. Lorenzo’s little sister, Cecilia, has already informed her teacher that they won’t need books for long, because her daddy is planning to give everyone an iPad.

“It’s coming,” Vitti said. “It’s all about what’s going to turn on a kid.”