Rachel Vitti: “We have the opportunity to transform a community’s literacy and achievement levels”

When the doors opened to welcome students back to school this year, a new school was added to the Jacksonville roster.  The GRASP Academy is a choice school that is part of the Duval Public School System serving 2nd through 7th grade students.  GRASP (Guiding, Remediating and Accelerating Student Performance) incorporates project based learning and enrichment with prescriptive structured language instruction and interventions.  According to the school’s website, this multi-sensory learning environment allows students that show signs of dyslexia, dyscalculia or dysgraphia to thrive.

RachelVitti_SQWe recently talked with public education advocate Rachel Vitti, president of The GRASP Alliance, a 501(c)3 organization designed to engage, enlighten and empower the students, staff and families associated with The GRASP Academy, on why this initiative is not only good for students, teachers and parents, but it is also good for the Jacksonville community. 

 

Generation W:  What are the benefits (for students, parents, teachers, community, etc.) in having The GRASP Academy as part of the Duval public school system instead of creating a private or charter school?

Rachel Vitti:  The Duval County School Board and Superintendent have listened to the plethora of families that have been historically left behind when it came to finding appropriate services for their children with reading delays. Across the country parents are organizing through grass-roots efforts like Decoding Dyslexia, to finally get the attention of their respected state legislatures and school boards. Parents have spent countless dollars and hours chauffeuring their children to after-school tutoring, summer reading camps, or even decided to home school, in order to fill-in the reading gaps. However, Duval County IS a school district with a literacy plan that includes serving students with dyslexia within its multi-tiered intervention protocol and the creation of The GRASP Academy.  DCPS has taken the charge of finally giving students with dyslexia the attention they deserve, as research has proven that it is the most common cause for reading, writing and spelling delays.  DCPS is filling a huge void within the public school arena as most districts do not recognize dyslexia specifically, nor do they do ANYTHING close to strategically accelerate their reading levels, which are unfortunately, usually several years below their grade-levels. By supporting students with dyslexia within the public school atmosphere, we have the opportunity to affect more children and families. We have the opportunity to engage more teachers and professionals working with students. We have the opportunity to transform a community’s literacy and achievement levels.

 

Gen W:  At Generation W, we focus on educating, inspiring and empowering women of all ages.  How does a school community like the one you are building at GRASP better educate, inspire, and empower the people of Jacksonville—from GRASP Academy students to parents to teachers to the community-at-large?

RV:  Because DCPS is the first in the state of Florida and even nationally to create a public school wholly dedicated to educating the dyslexic learner, they have carved a space in the world of education that is ripe for replicating. The GRASP Alliance has a focused mission to engage, enlighten, and empower the students, families, and staff associated with The GRASP Academy. It was designed to enhance and sustain the award-winning (JBJ Award for Innovation in Education-Collaboration) culture of educational excellence and improve the academic and emotional outcomes for students, families and community members that exhibit the gifts, strengths, and deficiencies connected with dyslexia. Although dyslexia can affect up to 20% of a population, many people are undiagnosed and have no idea that dyslexia may have been or is the cause of their reading inadequacy. With that said, The GRASP Alliance is driven to share the research based facts that although dyslexic people struggle with processing written words on a page, they share incredible powers in other brain functions. Functional MRIs now prove that people with dyslexia have alternative neural pathways that increase their cognitive function in areas such as visual awareness, verbal reasoning and understanding, creative and critical thinking, problem solving, emotional intelligence, and the ability to see how things process over time and ability to -grasp- the “big picture.” The strengths of individuals with dyslexia result from their personality characteristics which create aptitudes for innovation, leadership and entrepreneurship. That’s the message!! If we fail to educate and support students with dyslexia it becomes a tragic loss to a community’s potential.

 

Gen W:  How did you get involved with The GRASP Alliance and why is this so important to you?

RV:  Necessity is the mother of invention.  Even as a trained, Masters-level school teacher I was not adequately prepared to teach students in my class with severe reading delays. I was not aware of the specific word dyslexia, nor did I know any of the important red flags in child development in order for me to accurately spot a struggling reader with dyslexia in my class. I was trained to support an “emergent reader” with more opportunities for reading, guided reading, choral reading, and overall a more “whole language” approach to literacy instruction, all of which will NOT help a dyslexic student learn to read or narrow the achievement gap at a pace that is required to “catch up”. Without structured literacy instruction as described by the International Dyslexia Association, a student with dyslexia will usually fall further and further behind. So when my oldest began kindergarten, I thought the roadmap would have been fairly simple to follow, however I was blindsided when our school environment could not help me navigate the intricate maze of appropriate services and support for my very own struggling five-year old. I was told over and over again to “wait”, “have patience”, “give boys time to develop”, I was told that because he was a “bright boy”, the light bulb would eventually turn on and he would magically “learn to read with exposure to good literature”. It was not until my son began feeling emotionally frustrated with school that I began my personal research into why my otherwise curious, intelligent, well-adjusted, son was not making adequate progress in school. The information I gathered was not cheap nor easy to compile, it took weeks and months and several conversations with pediatricians, neurologists, ophthalmologists, optometrists (yes, there is a difference and they both look at different issues), occupational therapists, speech pathologists, audiologists, reading specialists, teachers, and tutors and other mothers. Some called me crazy at the time.  I’ll admit that I did invest honorary-degree level amounts of time trying to help my son, but the information I eventually gathered empowered me to make informed, research-based, legally sound, decisions on behalf of my son. I recognized that not everyone has the resources to devote the energy required to find what’s best, nor does the state adequately fund teacher training, assistive technology, or the intensive remediation required to build the literacy skills of a student who was left behind. Creating The GRASP Alliance has been slowly culminating to this point over the last five years, my years of advocacy work has landed me a position on the Nemours BrightStart advisory board, parent advisory board for Understood.org and a position on the Florida Branch of The International Dyslexia Association Board of Directors. I have used my position as a representative of an overlooked and underserved population to close the information and action gap that exists in public schools for students with dyslexia. The work is too important to not discuss and share, literacy and learning affects an entire community. We are only as strong as our weakest link.

 

Gen W:  What does the future hold for The GRASP Alliance—are there plans to expand The Academy or perhaps open additional schools that help students with learning challenges?

RV:  The immediate future for The GRASP Alliance is to help The Academy fulfill its mission to educate bright students that fit the dyslexic profile in DCPS. I understand DCPS would like to expand into 8th grade next year, and also increase the amount of teachers within DCPS that are trained with specific reading intervention strategies.

The GRASP Alliance was created to engage educational stakeholders on the importance of identifying and appropriately educating students with dyslexia; enlighten the community about the social return on investment when we support alternative strategies in the classroom, and empower families to influence systematic change to help individuals with dyslexia. We strive to to expand The GRASP Academy’s multi sensory programs, increase opportunities for project based learning, and support the academic and emotional well-being of the students and fill the financial gap that exists so that teachers and professionals can empower the students to transcend their learning differences, express their newfound voices, take ownership of their strengths, and GRASP the future!!

For more info on how to support dyslexia in Jacksonville and becoming a #GRASPAlly like/share/follow or visit…

For more information about The GRASP Academy, please visit their website.