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Students And Educators Discuss Dyslexia In Duval County

Rhema Thompson

Dyslexia can mean different things to different people.To 11-year-old Karissa Williams, it's like speaking another language. It’s a language she’s had to translate nearly all of her life. She began to realize that she saw words differently in first grade.  And she's found ways to decode them.

“When I see words, I try and picture what the words would look like to me and sound them out and try to write them down on paper and see if it makes sense to me,” said Karissa.

To Gayle Cane, Supervisor for Duval County Public Schools Exceptional Education and Students, dyslexia means family. Both her mother and her son, 21, are dyslexic.

“It means brilliant minds that think really, really different,” she said.

And for Duval Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti dyslexia is personal, familial and emotional. Two of his three sons are dyslexic. And Vitti can relate all too well. He is dyslexic, too.

“It’s personal, having to go back and remember being in school and struggling and also seeing my sons struggle through school,” he told a crowd of about 100 parents and educators Monday night.

They were in the WJCT Studio for a free screening of Dislecksia: the Movie.

The movie, produced by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Harvey Hubbell V and Captured Time Productions, explores dyslexia and what it says about the unique ways in which individuals learn.

Hubbell, who also has dyslexia, examines these questions and others using science, humor and interviews. He also calls on a few famous dyslexics including actors Billy Bob Thorton and Sarah Joy Brown and screenwriter Stephen J. Cannell.

Since October, the film has been screened in more than 70 venues from New York to Seattle.

The movie was presented Monday by Nemours BrightStart! in partnership with the district to spread local awareness. Laura Bailet is director of BrightStart!, which focuses on early childhood literacy.

“We feel that part of our mission is really to increase public awareness and knowledge of what dyslexia is, how we can find it as early as possible and that the vast majority of these children can become successful readers and can be very, very talented in other areas so we think the movie is a great example of that,” Bailet said.

Bailet was among a panel of district and state experts who answered questions following the movie. The panel also included Vitti, Cane, Florida International Dyslexia Association President Kathy Rawlins and Duval Schools Exceptional Education and Student Services Executive Director Mason Davis.

Nationally, dyslexia affects an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the population, although experts believe many cases go undocumented. In Duval County, the number of students with dyslexia is unclear, but there are about 6,000 students with specific learning disabilities in the district, said Davis.

Vitti said that the district is focusing on putting the right systems and processes into place for students with learning disabilities.

Some of those systems are already in place.

This year, Duval Schools partnered with Hope Haven Children’s Clinic to offer specialized services at four local elementary schools through pilot program GRASP Academy.

The district plans to expand the program into a fully-functioning school within R.L. Brown Elementary School, serving about 225 dyslexic second through sixth-graders. There are also plans to expand the district’s partnership with BrightStart as well as hiring an intervention specialist in each school to identify students with learning disabilities.

In the meantime, perseverance is key for parents and students, Vitti told the audience.

“Make them recognize that their brain is special, unique, and when directed in the right way, they will do beautiful things,” he said. “I’m a testimony of that.”

You can follow Rhema Thomopson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.