No hill for a stepper Grad turns disability into award

Published 12:13 pm Wednesday, June 2, 2010

After years of working to overcome a learning disability, a St. Aloysius High School graduate has turned her disadvantage into an advantage by winning a scholarship.

Katharine Halpin “Kay Kay” DeRossette, 17, was named a runner-up for the Anne Ford and Allegra Ford National Scholarship from the National Center for Learning Disabilities out of 300 applicants nationwide.

Kay Kay’s award comes with $1,000. Two winners, two runners-up and six honorable mentions were chosen, said Kay Kay’s mother, Lucy DeRossette.

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“Katharine submitted a power point presentation about herself, her learning disability and how she has learned to deal with it,” said DeRossette. 

The scholarship application criteria say that ideal candidates for the honor are well-rounded high school seniors who have a learning disability while demonstrating perseverance in obtaining a college degree.

Kay Kay, who graduated with her class Saturday at the Vicksburg Convention Center, was diagnosed with dyslexia at the Memphis Dyslexia Foundation when she was 7 and has attended many “Saturday schools” in the Orton-Gillingham method of teaching to compensate for the disability, DeRossette said.

Dyslexia is an impairment in the brain’s ability to translate written images received through the eyes into meaningful language. Dyslexia, the most common learning disability in children, often occurs in young people with normal vision and normal intelligence.

“Teachers and classmates often forget that she has a learning disability because she works so hard at everything she does,” said her mother. “But, she has had to work five times harder than the average student just to look average.” 

St. Al Principal Michele Townsend said Kay Kay’s hard work is a strong point in all aspects of her life. 

“She puts 100 percent in everything she does. She doesn’t have excuses,” Townsend said. “She’s a leader among her peers. She’s a leader in the classroom. She’s a leader on the softball field.”

Children with dyslexia require tutoring, and treatment for the disability often involves a multisensory education program.

Through the foundation, Kay Kay and her family participated in the program as an alternate way of learning the alphabet as well as using other senses such as touch to retain information. She has a memory board, on which she draws a letter with her finger as she says what sound it makes.

“This program is a big self-esteem builder,” said Kay Kay’s father, Tim DeRossette. “Where a kid who could not read would be scared to raise their hand, it gave Kay Kay the confidence.”

At the end of the school year, Kay Kay had earned an overall 3.81 grade point average while serving as student body president, captain of the Flashettes dance team, captain of the softball team and co-captain of the retreat team. She has worked hundreds of hours throughout the years as a volunteer tutor and as a paid tutor for Knowledge College at her parents’ home, where she has helped other learning-disabled students with reading. 

The disability affects such a wide range of people that severity is difficult to determine. Those who are diagnosed early and are involved in a proper remedial program are more successful.

“When she took the ACT for the first time, she made a 17,” Lucy DeRossette said. “She told me that she really wanted a 27. I laughed and told her that she could certainly improve her score but that in all my years of teaching I had never seen anybody go up 10 points. She just got her last ACT scores back, and it was her highest — a 26! Not 10 points — but close!”

St. Al guidance counselor Mary Everett said Kay Kay also is a member of the Liturgical Team, Key Club, Leo Club, Library Club, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Drama Club. She is a St. Al mentor and a Bronze Presidential Service Award winner for more than 100 hours of community service.

“As a student, Kay Kay excels. She’s a role model for other students. She’s a genuinely kind person,” said Everett.

Kay Kay plans to study pharmacy at the University of Mississippi in the fall.

“I’m a little nervous about the classes. It’s going to be difficult,” she said.

“She’s the type that will do well in whatever program she joins,” Everett said. “She’s a caring person, and she’s going into a caring field. I think it’s perfect for her.”

The Anne Ford Scholarship was first awarded in 2002. Following a donation from her daughter, Allegra Ford, in 2009 the award was renamed and expanded to recognize students with learning disabilities.