Beating the Odds

Photo courtesy of Kelly Grillo

Kelly Grillo ’05MA ’11PhD got straight Fs her freshman year of high school.


She was ranked 363 out of the 365 students in her class. But, by the end of her senior year, she rose all the way to the top 32.


She now holds two degrees from UCF and is an award-winning teacher, professional speaker and coordinator of special education services for multiple school districts in Indiana.


For most of her upbringing, Grillo was classified as having perceptual impairment, a learning disability now more commonly referred to as dyslexia, which makes processing symbols and sounds challenging. She couldn’t read until the eighth grade and grew up in poverty with a mother who was also illiterate.


When she was in kindergarten, Grillo’s teacher noticed she wasn’t speaking much, along with academic and social delays. She wasn’t on pace with the other students and would have behavioral outbursts when she felt the other kids were teasing her.


Grillo spent the next several years in self-contained special education classes, where she was bullied by fellow students and even educators. But she still sought out opportunities to make others smile.


One day, in sixth grade, she composed homemade Valentine’s Day cards for her schoolmates that said, “I lick you” rather than “I like you.” This “lude act” resulted in a referral to the office. Grillo was sent to be sent home by the office staff, but instead ran and hid for hours under the deck at her house.


“I ran away from school because that’s where I felt my worse and I didn’t want to be there,” she says. “And then they suspend me for three days for it! They gave me exactly what I wanted.”


Grillo was met head-on in the seventh grade by a determined social studies teacher who recognized potential and refused to let her off the hook. Grillo was provided with applicable tools and learned to read that year, but was still considered below grade level.


She persisted and found the tools she needed ­— most importantly her own drive — to not only succeed in the classroom, but also help others do the same.


After receiving her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rutgers University — Camden, Grillo’s interest was piqued when she heard UCF had a brand-new, fully online graduate program in teaching students with disabilities.


“I have had so many blessings as a result of being in the UCF family,” Grillo says. “I have some of the most interesting and dynamic people in my life. I’m so lucky that UCF —such an innovative and inspiring

university — took me in.”


Not only did UCF take Grillo in, but she ended up a double-graduate of the university, with a master’s degree in education and a Ph.D. in exceptional education.


Grillo uses the lessons learned from her own experience and education to better serve her students. Photo courtesy of Kelly Grillo.


“We lose roughly 10% of all students with disabilities each year,” Grillo says. “So, to actually get them across the stage and then across the stage again and then across the stage again? I’m really quite an anomaly.


“What percentage of the population has been identified with a learning disability, then qualifies to get into a school as rigorous as UCF, and then ends up with a Ph.D.? It blows me away that that story gets to be mine.”


Grillo’s learning disability is still a facet of daily life she must navigate.  When she walks into a business meeting and is handed packets of paper she didn’t see ahead of time, her palms start sweating. She may have spent a total of nine years in higher education classrooms, but sometimes the word consequence can trip her up.


“I’m really anxious a lot of time because when you have a Ph.D., you don’t want somebody to perceive you as dumb,” Grillo says. “My disability gets me into little situations where anybody can perceive me that way. It can bring me to tears, because it feels debilitating at times. I’m brilliant but sometimes I misspell things in an email and then someone might think I’m illiterate.”


Grillo combats this in her professional life by asking for agendas for a meeting a day early so she can look it over, using accessibility tools such as screen readers and other auditory-reading tools. She says that she reads with her ears, just as someone who is blind might read with their fingers.


Throughout her years in the classroom, both as a student and over her 18 years of teaching, Grillo has seen time and time again that education and technology are the grand equalizers.


“There’s no reason why I should be where I am today,” Grillo says. “My parents were poor, my mom made it as far as her eighth-grade graduation, my dad was a high-school dropout and I had a learning disability. I ended up the first in my family to go to college. But I think every family needs that story. It changes the trajectory. When I used to tell people I’d go to college someday they’d laugh and ask if I was going to be the janitor. Now when my son says he’s going to go to college someday people say, ‘damn right you are.’


“I don’t want it to ever feel like I’m giving up on my kids,” she says. “I do feel like a lot of people in my life gave up on me; I was their throwaway because they’d get so frustrated that they couldn’t reach me. But they just didn’t have the skills, and I do, so I try to pull those more challenging students closer rather than pushing them away, because I get it."


Awards for Kelly Grillo:

  • 2020 International CEC Teacher of the Year
  • Invited to White House as a STEM Champion of Change nominee
  • 2018 Florida Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) Teacher of the Year
  • 2019 International CEC Division of Learning Disabilities Teacher of the Year

Story by Katie Schmidt