Fourth graders Tyler Langel, Ryan Tolson and Marcela Martinez have a session with their teacher Merry Pat Dillman at St. Anastasia School in Fort Pierce during summer classes. (JACKIE HOLFELDER|FC)

Teacher helps children with learning disabilities find success

FORT PIERCE | Merry Pat Dillman believes God had something to do with linking her to St. Anastasia School in Fort Pierce, her school family for nearly three decades now.

The fourth-grade teacher vividly recalled that day 28 years ago when she talked to Vickie Guettler, then principal of the school, and posed the question, “Have you ever thought about starting a program for children with learning differences?” Dillman was surprised when Guettler told her of the diocese’s launch of initiatives into the special education area and was amazed when the principal then said, “God works in mysterious ways.”

Nearly four decades later, God is still working in the classrooms and hallways of St. Anastasia School, providing outreach and special teaching to help children with learning challenges achieve success. The school’s high quality and successful learning resource program, which Dillman helped develop, is also still going strong.

Dillman said today all schools in the Diocese of Palm Beach offer specialized programs and assistance for identified students to address specific learning needs. “I believe early intervention and identification are critical for the success (of students,) as well as communication between teachers, parents and administrators,” she explained. “St. Anastasia’s teachers are extremely competent and a valuable component to the student’s progress.”

Dillman works closely with parents and teachers as part of St. Anastasia’s special program that offers identified students in grades one to five assistance with reading using specially designed and proven techniques, and students in sixth through eighth grades are helped in language arts, math and science. Trained and certified teachers assist with the program.

“We truly love Mrs. Dillman for everything she did and thank God she was placed in our lives,” said Jane Goggin, the mother of Eric, who recently graduated and is entering John Carroll High School this fall. “Eric started with Mrs. Dillman three-quarters of the way through first grade. He had just been diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia,” she explained about the learning disorders.

Goggin especially liked the special program’s small-group sessions and after-school tutoring. “By the start of middle school, he no longer required either,” she said, also adding that her son graduated with high marks and with the classmates he started with from day one. “She followed Eric’s progress closely through middle school and truly cares about the children. My son will always be thankful that he was put exactly where he needed to be. He now is reading at grade level and, while slow, doesn’t mind it.”

The Florida Catholic asked Dillman about her calling to the vocation. Back then, the field of special education was relatively new. She said that one of her sisters was a learning disabilities teacher. She sat in on some classes to observe and was intrigued by what she saw.

She enrolled at Florida State University for its program and was one of 25 students accepted. Five and a half years later, she graduated with a bachelor’s (magna cum laude) and master’s degree in interrelated areas of special education.

Dillman is marking 40 years as a teacher. She served in public schools 12 years before coming to St. Anastasia, where she developed the school’s special learning resource program. She teaches grades one through four and people we interviewed said she is passionate about what she does.

Danny Damielen and his wife, Elise, praised the program and Dillman’s work. “We decided to move our son to St. Anastasia School three years ago since he was struggling in public school,” said Elise.

“We had heard good things about (the school) and the wonderful reading program. We can’t say enough about how our son has excelled working with Merry Pat Dillman. Giorgio is now 10 years old, reading at his grade level and continuing to blossom with the help of Merry Pat. She has been a blessing to our family.”

Jeff Cameron is a teacher and coach at Fort Pierce Central High School. His son Anthony, 9, going into fourth grade, is enrolled at St. Anastasia. “Merry Pat is so committed to helping her students make gains in the classroom. The work that she does in her pullout program not only helped Anthony academically, but really started to restore his confidence in school. For the first time, my son expressed sadness on his last day of school, which really goes to show how important she and his other teachers make him feel.

“Merry Pat worked very closely with Anthony’s teachers and me to create a plan for success that would lead to improved academics, as well as creating a stronger work ethic in class,” he continued. “Anthony’s situation was different since he had not formally been evaluated at his former school and was simply labeled ADD. Merry Pat evaluated him and made valuable suggestions … as well as facilitating a full psychological evaluation that better identified Anthony’s processing issues. I truly can’t imagine my son having the success he has had this past year in his old school. I can’t thank Merry Pat enough.”