December 08, 2005.
Carolyn Meyer shares a quality with the blind children to whom she's devoted the past decade-plus of her life: the ability to imagine something she can't see. In the empty rooms of a formerly run-down rambler on Edmonds Way, she envisions musical instruments, stuffed birds and animals, talking computers and children who are included in every activity. In January, Meyer, who has run the Louis Braille Center in downtown Edmonds since 1996, will open the doors to a private day school for blind children from kindergarten through eighth grade. It's believed it will be the country's second day school for the blind - the first is in Philadelphia - that's not associated with a state institution. Meyer, 66, plans to create a rich, tactile environment and a curriculum that addresses both academic and social skills. The Louis Braille School also will offer an alternative to the two prevalent models for educating the blind: mainstreaming in public schools or attending a residential facility. "We want to offer them another chance," she said, and then smiled at what she recognized as a Freudian slip. "Another choice," she corrected herself. "A neighborhood school." Children who are mainstreamed may get only an hour or two of specialized instruction, such as Braille, during a school day. Services to blind children are often provided across a district or region by a teacher who travels from school to school. Students in full-time residential settings, such as the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver, gain mobility and social skills and have access to a range of specially adapted learning materials and technology, but they often must live apart from their families. When Meyer's center for the blind began offering summer and weekend classes to children in 2000, parents confirmed what Meyer had observed. The students opened up and thrived in a specially designed setting that let them interact with peers. "They got to be themselves," said Hy Cohen, a visually impaired 1997 Mountlake Terrace High School graduate who helped out at the camps and will teach technology at the new school.
"They needed to know they were accepted for who they were and not known only for what they couldn't do."
Cohen described his own education in the Edmonds School District as "pretty good," but he said that though he read at grade level in Braille, he was far behind when it came to reading large-print versions of his textbooks - not because he couldn't understand them but because he could see only two or three letters at a time. He faced inevitable incidents of teasing, difficulties in accessing some school programs and the constant challenge of getting around in a sighted world. "There's a lot about school that's hard that has nothing to do with you. It's just the way it is," Cohen said. A national study completed last year noted that the educational attainment for blind children often lags behind that of sighted students. Forty percent of blind adults did not have a high-school diploma, compared with 25 percent of the general adult population, according to Diana Zuckerman, the president of the National Research Center for Women and Families and the author of a study, "Blind Adults in America: Their Lives and Challenges."
Zuckerman said the number of blind children in America has declined as better prenatal care and immunizations have curtailed common causes of blindness, such as rubella. In Washington, about 1,200 school-age children are visually impaired, according to figures from the Instructional Resource Center at the Washington State School for the Blind, which provides assistance to school districts and trains teachers. The numbers in local school districts are similarly small. There are 27 students with visual impairments in the Everett School District, 40 in Edmonds, and 21 in the Northshore district, which includes Bothell, Woodinville and Kenmore. In keeping with another national trend, about 85 percent of these children, many of whom were born premature, have other disabilities in addition to blindness. "Blind kids today are really different than blind kids 50 years ago," Zuckerman said. At the new Louis Braille School, a state-certified special-education teacher will do much of the teaching. In addition to the traditional math, reading, writing, science and art, the children will be taught skills for daily living such as recognizing money and picking out clothes. Two computers will be equipped with software that translates words on screen into Braille or a synthesized voice. Students will have a library of Braille books, though Meyer hastens to add that a school for the blind can never have enough. Tuition will be $800 a month, comparable to other private schools, she said. Meyer will have room for 20 to 25 students, though only a handful are expected at first because classes are starting in the middle of the school year. Meyer developed an interest in the blind as a girl when she read biographies of Louis Braille, a Frenchman who at age 15 invented the raised-dot code that gave blind people access to the written word, and Helen Keller, who, though blind and deaf, attended Radcliffe College, traveled widely and authored several books. Both broke down stereotypes about what the blind could do. "Both had dreams.
Both persevered at a time when society wasn't easy," Meyer said. Meyer, an Edmonds resident, worked for years as a paralegal in immigration law. One day in a Seattle office building, she noticed a blind woman, apparently lost but ignored by the passing lunchtime crowd. Meyer guided the woman to the right address, and when she started back to work, "I knew it was time to make a change," she said. Meyer studied Braille and started the center, first in North Seattle and then in Edmonds to provide services to the blind. She funded programs at the center by translating written materials into Braille for schools, churches and businesses. Al Holte, a retired Snohomish County judge who is active in the Edmonds Lions Club, said members have held work parties at the new school to clean up the grounds and prepare the building, largely on the strength of Meyer's commitment. "She's so convincing when she talks to people that everybody wants to help," Holte said. As Meyer searched for a location for the school, she needed some of the perseverance of her childhood heroes.
A former hunting lodge with large grounds seemed ideal, but the sale fell through.
Other promising locations also didn't work out. The 1953 rambler on Edmonds Way has only a paved parking area and no yard, and it lacked many safety features required for a state-licensed school. Meyer had to postpone the planned opening from September to January to bring the wiring and disabled access up to state requirements. As Meyer walked through the empty house recently, she identified each classroom. There's "the messy room," for science, art and lunch; "the quiet room," for downtime and reading; and "the playroom," which includes balls with bells inside and races that use ropes for guidance. If the school is successful, Meyer said, children will return to regular schools with a good educational foundation and the ability to advocate for their own needs. At the Washington State School for the Blind, for instance, the typical stay is two to three years. It's a vision Meyer has nurtured for 15 years, one she put into words in the new school's brochure: "The purpose of education for our children is the same as it is for all children. It is to live and love, to lead full and joyful lives, and ultimately to use one's education and talents in the service of others."
Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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