Thursday, June 19, 2003

Kid who couldn’t read makes university dean’s list

Published in the Current

Before Arin Bratt came to Scarborough High School, he had been told he would never learn to read and wouldn’t make much of himself. His dyslexia was too severe. Last June, he left Scarborough High School, after his junior year, and now 18, is about to go into his junior year in college and made the dean’s list last semester.

“He always wanted to go to college,” said his mother, Susan Snow. Too shy to be interviewed himself, Bratt allowed his proud mother to speak for him. When he was growing up, his dyslexia meant he couldn’t read.

“We read everything to him,” Snow said. That included books, magazines and even the encyclopedia. Growing up, his peers made fun of him for being “stupid” or “dumb,” because he couldn’t read.

As a middle-schooler in Texas, Bratt was told that he had “plateaued” – that he would never learn to read and wouldn’t get much further in school.

“That’s when he really dug in,” said high school biology teacher, Ellen Ross, who later coached Bratt on the high school Academic Decathlon team. The family’s move from Texas to Scarborough also played a big role.

He was so determined to read, Snow said, that he quit playing soccer, and the family brought in a high school student who spent hours teaching him to read. After months of work, “he painstakingly got through about two sentences,” Snow said.

“He compensated by memorizing” everything that was said in his classes. He couldn’t really take notes, and it was pointless for someone else to take notes for him, because he couldn’t read them.

He could do math, but it was hard for him to show his work. Near the end of his freshman year, the family called a school conference to discuss whether Bratt would be allowed to take physics the following year with the seniors, instead of biology with the sophomores.

The high school physics class requires calculus, but Bratt had only taken geometry. Everyone agreed anyway, as long as Bratt took calculus at the same time.

“Any one of them could have said no,” Snow said.

“He was bright and quite motivated,” said physics teacher Dave O’Connor. “He was able to formulate a picture of an abstract thought quite easily.”

He did very well in class. “His analytical ability was phenomenal,” O’Connor said. “He wanted to understand things at a fundamental level.”

Bratt also knew that he needed foreign-language experience to get into college. Because of his difficulties learning from books, he planned to study in Costa Rica for a summer, to immerse himself in the language. When 9/11 happened, the trip was cancelled, forcing Bratt to take classes at USM instead.

He took other university classes, as well, particularly in math and science, earning college credit that would later help him skip an entire year of college.

He also dived into the Academic Decathlon team with a passion. “He was very focused,” said Ross, the team’s coach.

He learned so much that not only did he rank third individually in the nation for schools the size of Scarborough’s at the Academic Decathlon, but he also took advanced placement tests in five subjects, doing well enough to earn college credit for them as well.

“I think sometimes he amazed himself,” Ross said.

He was given extra time on the tests because of his reading difficulties, but he had to know all of the material involved, and communicate it clearly.

As his junior year progressed, he became interested in nanotechnology, the science of very tiny machines that involve all the sciences –biology, chemistry and physics.

The University of Texas at Dallas, which Snow calls “a think tank for nanotechnology,” offered Bratt early admission and a scholarship for him to study there. His college dream was real.

Technically speaking, he couldn’t graduate from high school until he finished his senior year. So he dropped out of school and got a GED instead, which required the consent of the superintendent because of his young age.

He started classes at UT-Dallas in the fall of 2002 and had enough college credit in advance to skip his sophomore year and start his junior year in the fall. He is double-majoring in physics and economics.

He still has accommodations for his spelling problems, but continues to make progress in that area. “As he reads more, he learns how to spell in context,” Snow said.

His reading continues to hover between the second- and fifth-grade reading levels. “I don’t think he’s ever gotten above fifth-grade reading level, but he compensates,” Snow said.

And despite his trouble reading and writing, Bratt is working on a book based on his original historical research on the Tripolitan war, a conflict in the early 1800s between the fledgling United States and the Barbary States, home to many pirates.

One of the players in the war was Portland-born Edward Preble, a naval commander.

And while his own hard work may be the source of his success, Snow said Bratt is deeply grateful to the staff of the Scarborough schools. “He feels as though they deserve all the credit,” Snow said.

“The school worked with him on his strengths,” she said. “Anyplace else wouldn’t have been open to that.”