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NCLD’s 2015 Bill Ellis Award Winner – Dr. Nikolai Vitti

Written December 17, 2015

NCLD is proud to announce that Dr. Nikolai Vitti is the winner of the 2015 Bill Ellis Award. The award was presented at the 66th annual conference of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), held in Grapevine, TX.

The Bill Ellis Award is presented annually to an educator or other professional who demonstrates excellence in practice and a commitment to all students, including those with learning and attention issues. Established in 1996, the award honors the memory of Bill Ellis, a great humanitarian, educator and visionary who served as NCLD’s director of professional services.

It was Bill’s vision that helped to frame the organization that NCLD is today. He was committed to collaboration with other organizations, was instrumental in positioning NCLD’s leadership role on a national level and recognized the importance of early intervention. Bill also valued the roles that general educators play in the lives of children with learning disabilities. These are all tenants that NCLD still stands by today.

Dr. Nikolai Vitti, the 20th winner of this annual award, has been open about his own struggles with dyslexia, which were not formally identified until college.  As a result of his personal journey and the struggles now being experienced by one of his children, Nikolai is unwavering in his commitment to ensuring the highest quality instruction and support to all children before they experience frustration and failure in school.

In Dr. Vitti’s acceptance speech, he proclaimed that his goal as an educator and a leader is “to challenge, disrupt, question and dismantle” the systems and practices that are not helping all students become successful and independent learners. He added that “we have a great opportunity to help children reach their academic and civic potential” if we address their individual differences and provide them the targeted instruction they need and the opportunities they deserve to reach their potential.

Dr. Vitti grew up in Detroit, MI and was awarded a football scholarship to Wake Forest University where he earned a B.A. in History and a master’s in Education. He went on to complete a doctorate from Harvard University in Education, Administration, Planning and Social Policy, receiving a prestigious Presidential Scholarship and was a member of the Urban Superintendent Program.

Now as the Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools, the 16th largest district in the country, Dr. Vitti and the school board initiated a strategic planning process that focused on professional development, equitable and efficient use of resources, engagement of parents and caregivers, and building impactful connections between school and community. Using student progress data to guide decision-making at the district, school and classroom level, he launched programs to assist students who are more than two years behind their peers in learning.

As part of this work, the GRASP Academy (Guiding, Remediating, and Accelerating Student Performance) was created: a public school focusing on serving students with dyslexia and training faculty to use evidence-based instructional strategies that have proven successful with struggling learners. He also introduced reading coaches in all of the district’s schools and math coaches in all low performing schools. A parent academy was also created, offering courses throughout the county to assist parents to be active partners with school personnel and to hone skills that will help them with parenting and job skill development.

The results of these efforts are impressive. “In Jacksonville, our 8th grade reading scores for students with disabilities are now number two in the nation… and we’re number one in 4th and 8th grade math,” he said. “We have also been able to increase the graduation rate for students with disabilities by 17 percentage points.” Dr. Vitti hopes that the model created in Duval County will serve as an example of what can be replicated at scale if people are willing to think and do things differently.

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