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Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti opens up about his own dyslexia

7:31 PM, Feb 11, 2013   |    comments
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- He's a new face in Jacksonville, a prominent local leader, a Harvard grad with a PhD. He has the golden resume. But his background might surprise you. In fact, his openness about his own struggles in school might surprise you even more.

However, Dr. Nikolai Vitti has decided -- along with his wife, Rachel --to plunge full force into making changes in the Duval school system when it comes to identifying and helping children with dyslexia or any learning disability.

Dr. Vitti said he struggled for years in school until he did research and hired a psychologist. He was in college then. And, as he suspected, he was diagnosed with dyslexia.  

Dr. Vitti and his wife started noticing signs that one of their four children might have dyslexia, as well. Rachel, who's also a teacher, said Lorenzo, age 9, has trouble finding the pattern in cat, bat, mat, for example. 

"He'd say m-a-aat," she said. His reading wasn't fluid.

She said he'd see the word "cat" and he'd know it but he couldn't quite express it. Sometimes it would come out as "tac," she said. 

Now Dr. Vitti said, "I see myself in him."

They are also beginning to see signs another of their four children has dyslexia. Marcello is five years old, and they're going to have him tested soon.

Both Dr. Vitti and his son are good examples of what researchers say needs to be explained about dyslexia.

Too many people believe dyslexics are dumb or so slow they'll never make it through school. Dr. Vitti and his son are dyslexic, but also test in high ranges in other areas. For Dr. Vitti, he said, IQ tests show his verbal skills at 99%. His son is classified as "gifted."

But Dr. Vitti struggled for years in school. He said he would get into a sweat when it was time to read aloud in class. He said if the teacher allowed him to say, "pass,"  he was happy. But when he couldn't pass, he'd try to read, and then after class kids would taunt him by saying, "Nikolai is stupid."

He remembers getting one out of 10 correctly on spelling tests. But he said over time, he forced himself to take advantage of his picture memory and memorize words. He wouldn't allow himself to use the automatic drop down boxes to check his spelling.  He'd "play with the words" until he mastered them.

Dr. Vitti said if he'd had FCAT tests in 3rd grade and 10th, he probably would never have graduated.

He said "it's a shame" how many "bright kids" with dyslexia fall through the cracks in our school system. He said teachers are doing their best, but many don't have the training to spot early warnings signs, even in Pre-K.

Dr. Gayle Cane, RTI Director with Duval schools, said teachers need to focus on muti-sensory help for students with dyslexia, for example. Dr. Cane's son and mother are dyslexic and she's worked with thousands of dyslexic students.

"The whole world can open up for these very talented people," she said. But teachers need to work in the early years to help them, for example, read well.  She said we can't just focus on "paper and pencil," but we need to add letters in clay, for example, to help some students.

Dr. Vitti wants to make changes soon in Duval schools. He plans to streamline the process of getting an IEP (Individualized Education Program) for students who need custom help and strategies for their learning disabilities or, rather, different learning styles.

He knows many parents have been frustrated with the system now. So he plans to use current resources for more intense teacher training and parent training, as well. He wants to equip parents to help at home.

"Not to sound cliche, but hope is on the way," Dr. Vitti said.

Rachel said she's willing to talk with any parent struggling and she's open to forming a support group. She said it's important to focus on children's strengths, not their deficits.

"And my last point would be -- don't give up.  I am testament to that,"  Dr. Vitti said.

For resources on dyslexia, Dr. Cane suggests the Dyslexia Association and some parents suggest Bright Solutions for Dyslexia (www.BrightSolutions.US). You can find the warnings signs of dyslexia for all age groups, including adults, on that website.

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