Schools & Education

Beating the odds to graduate high school

Jonathan Rivera perseveres through dyslexia and ADD.

As someone who loves to compete in football and track and field, 18-year-old Jonathan Rivera knows sometimes the odds are not in one’s favor. Yet underdogs always have a chance, no matter how slight. 

When Jonathan and his parents took part in the San Benito High School graduation ceremony on June 3, it was a symbol of victory against high odds: he was born with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. 

Dyslexia is a genetic brain condition that can affect people differently, such as making it difficult to read, seeing letters out of order, and experiencing difficulty with spelling and writing. According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, learning disorders affect about 20% of the population. Of that group, 80%-90% struggle with dyslexia.

In an effort to help his son, his father Joey Rivera hired tutor France Haaker seven years ago.

“When he began working with France I said, ‘There’s no way he is graduating high school,’” Joey said. “You know, that’s the dream of any parent.”

Haaker said she first noticed how far behind Jonathan had fallen when she worked as a paraprofessional in Jonathan’s fifth grade class. At the time, he was reading at a kindergarten level. 

To hide his challenges in reading, Haaker said she saw Jonathan turn himself into the class clown, disrupting other students and not paying attention. 

“I thought we were going to lose him,” Haaker said. 

After offering her services to Jonathan’s parents, France began to tutor him with 30-minute sessions twice a week. Her efforts didn’t come without growing pains, however, as Jonathan was uncooperative with her and his parents. 

“I just kept telling him, ‘Don’t give up. You’re going to get this but we have to do this and it’s going to be full of pain, but you’ve got to do this and stick with me and it’ll come,’” Haaker said.

She said she knew Jonathan had to work twice as hard as his classmates to process the same information.

“There is no way I could have caught him up,” Haaker said about teaching a student 12 years of academics in seven years. “It’s too many grade levels in between.”

Despite all the stress, time and effort, Joey said Jonathan didn’t feel sorry for himself and worked hard to earn his high school diploma. Joey also recognized that there are many other families that can’t afford to pay for resources to help their children.

“I’m glad my son got the opportunity, but most parents can’t afford to pay for that and you see the kids struggling and they give up,” Joey said. “That’s what’s wrong with the system.”

According to EdSource, about half of people incarcerated in the U.S. have difficulty reading. This may be due to learning disabilities such as dyslexia. 

In recent years, California has taken steps to address the needs of students with dyslexia. The state adopted guidelines in 2017 in an effort to help provide resources, but schools are not required to follow them. In February, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget plan included $4 million for screening, research and professional training on dyslexia as part of the California Dyslexia Initiative.

Getting up to speed with his graduation requirements was a challenge that continued through Jonathan’s senior year. After failing math halfway through the first semester, Joey hired another tutor to help Jonathan. He improved his F to a B by the end of the semester. 

Following graduation, Jonathan plans to attend Hartnell College to join the track and field team. After Hartnell, he wants to go to a trade school to become an electrician. 

A man of few words, Jonathan said graduating meant a lot to him. 

“It means you had the whole world against you and you just pushed past it,” he said. 

A list of resources can be found at California schools for people with dyslexia.


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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is BenitoLink Co-Editor and Content Manager. He joined BenitoLink as reporter intern and was soon brought on staff as a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. He is a San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily. He is a USC Center for Health Journalism 2020 California Fellow.