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GRASP Students Get Words Of Encouragement From Football Star

Rhema Thompson

At 6 foot, 4 inches and 323 pounds, Jaguars defensive end Red Bryant knows a thing or two about tackling challenges. But it took some extra help from a high school English teacher to help him take on one of his biggest hurdles: learning.

"She was one of the first people to tell me I just learn (differently)," he told a group of students seated before him.

Bryant has dyslexia.

"We understand, we get it and we want to keep you guys encouraged," he said.

He was speaking at GRASP Academy at R.L.Brown Elementary, Duval County’s first fully-functioning school for students with dyslexia and similar learning disabilities.

It is the first traditional public school for dyslexic students in the state, according to Duval Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

The school opened to about 150 students in August and operates as its own wing out of Brown Elementary.

It's an expansion of a pilot program in partnership with Hope Haven Children’s Clinic that the district launched at four elementary schools last year.

This year, the Duval County School Board approved a $750,000-dollar contract to extend the services provided by Hope Haven and bring them together in one self-contained school. Those support services are funded through federal IDEA money. The school's teachers and administrators are paid through the district's general revenue.

Classroom curriculum at the school often incorporates sight, sounds and hands-on activities. During courses, students can take "brain breaks" and squeeze on their own personal stress balls, which they call "fidgets," to help them focus.

"It’s a lot easier to learn. It’s a lot more fun to learn, and it makes me want to come to school more," said fifth-grader Ryan Alexander.

He said he first began to notice differences in the way he learned during third grade.

"I’d see a lot of colors when I was reading," he said. "Sometimes, the words would get a bit too small and I’d sometimes read backwards."

The district Exceptional Students Services department estimates there are about 6,000 students with specific learning disabilities in the district. That includes dyslexia.

GRASP operates as a magnet school, but students do not apply to get in, Vitti said. Instead they rely on anecdotal information and academic data that reflects the possibility of dyslexia or other learning disabilities.

The district is also extending its reach this year to students who don't get in GRASP by providing small group or one-on-one intervention support at every elementary school in the district, Vitti said.

For Vitti, the program has personal significance. He is dyslexic and so are his two sons.

"If you would have asked students that I went to school with--or my teachers even--when I was in elementary school, ‘Did you think Nikolai Vitti would go to Harvard and become the superintendent of the 16th largest district in the country?’ I guarantee you every student, every teacher would say ‘No way. Nikolai?’" he told students at the school Tuesday.

His hope, he said, is to convince them that they can achieve great things, too.

The speech was enough to convince Alexander, who sat listening intently with a smile.

"I know if he can do it, other people can do it," he said. 

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.