Oliver Cottage is a home away from home for Secondary Program student Chloe. It's where she learns independent living skills – and has fun hanging out with friends.
By Alix Hackett
It’s Thursday, which means it’s Brian’s night to cook. Standing at the kitchen island in his dorm, the 21-year-old Secondary Program student arranges a bowl of frozen corn and a slice of frozen pizza on a tray. He consults a braille recipe and then carries his food to the microwave.
“One minute,” he narrates, as his fingers hit the corresponding buttons. As the seconds tick by, an aroma of melted cheese and tomato sauce fills the kitchen.
“Oh yeah,” Brian says, waving his hand over the fragrant plate. “That’s just right. Not too warm, not too cool.”
Brian is one of 66 students who live in Perkins School for the Blind’s brick residence halls, known on campus as “cottages.” For residential students, the cottage is their home away from home – it’s where they eat meals, watch movies and hang out with friends.
It’s also an extension of the classroom. Perkins staffers work around the clock to support students and help them learn the skills they need to be more independent, whether it’s setting the table before dinner or managing a grocery budget.
“For these kids, every minute is a learning experience,” said longtime residential living coordinator Kathy Croy, who oversees Oliver Cottage. “Everything we do is to try to increase independence.”
The cottages are co-ed, and students are assigned to one according to their level of independence. At Keller-Sullivan Cottage, where Brian lives, students cook breakfast every morning, and dinner once or twice a week. They also do their own laundry, manage their calendars and do chores like dusting and vacuuming.
“I’ve got cooking on Wednesdays and Thursdays, cottage meetings on Tuesdays,” Brian says, listing off his schedule. “They’re responsibilities, but I’m usually quick with that stuff. I get it done.”
For years, Perkins educators have stressed the importance of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) in preparing students with visual impairment for adult life. The ECC includes skills like social interaction, independent living and self-determination, which sighted children often gain through observation. In the classroom, Perkins teachers weave ECC instruction into their academic lessons, but in the cottages, the ECC takes center stage.
“These are crucial areas that our students need exposure to,” said Rachel Dubuque, who supervises residential living in the Secondary Program. “Residential life gives us the gift of time – we’re trying new skills, we’re troubleshooting and we’re repeating it over and over.”
Some of the best ECC instruction takes place in response to challenges that arise naturally in the cottage setting, Dubuque said. This is where roommates can squabble and evening scheduling conflicts can arise. In these situations, residential staffers have an opportunity to help students strengthen their problem-solving skills.
“We’re helping them make choices and really think through the consequences of their decisions,” said Dubuque. “(We’re always asking), how are we going to make this work?”
There’s no requirement that Perkins students live on campus, but those who do say they’ve benefited from the experience.
Secondary Program student Chloe, 16, lived with her parents and two younger sisters until a few years ago when she moved to Oliver Cottage. Becoming residential helped her to improve her mealtime skills like pouring drinks and using modified utensils to feed herself.
“I’m more independent here because my parents aren’t doing everything for me,” she said. “I’m still learning how to do laundry, but I can make my own meals. I can make mac and cheese in the microwave.”
For parents, teaching a child who is blind to operate a potentially dangerous appliance can be daunting, but in the cottages, it’s part of a carefully planned learning process. Each appliance – from the toaster to the coffeemaker – has step-by-step instructions in large print and braille. Students must memorize and perform them perfectly five times before they’re cleared to use that appliance by themselves.
“There are 11 steps for the George Foreman grill,” said Croy. “That sounds ridiculous, but for safety, one of the steps is to pull back any loose hair.”
Whenever possible, appliances are modified using clear braille labels or tactile markers. Shelves and cabinets are labeled as well, and many countertops have tactile strips mounted at one end, to serve as navigational landmarks. The modifications serve two purposes: they help students gain confidence in the kitchen while also preparing them to set up future living spaces.
“We’re trying to get them thinking about where they’re going (later in life),” said Alicia Carroll, assistant residential living coordinator at Keller-Sullivan Cottage. “If it’s a dorm room setting, how can I change my room to accommodate me? Or if I’m getting an apartment, what can I do to my apartment so it suits me?”
Every day around 4:30 p.m., students return to the cottages after classes, to relax and socialize before evening meals and activities. In the dining room at Oliver Cottage, Chloe jokes with her friend Maggie about their favorite class – music makers. Soon, the pair is singing along to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” as the video plays on Maggie’s iPad.
“Let me do the secondary voices,” Chloe says, dancing in her chair.
Developing connections with other students is part of what makes the residential experience so valuable, said Dubuque. With every conversation, students build social interaction and communication skills while gaining the satisfaction that comes with true friendship.
In some cases, they’re forming bonds that will outlast their time at Perkins. This is true for Secondary Program student Brian, who’s grown close with many of his classmates over the years.
“I talk to my friends a lot about questions we have or things we have in common, like music,” he said. “It’s a blast. I cherish those moments.”
In the evenings, students depart from their cottages and head to various on-campus activities like karaoke and Spanish Club. Some host online radio shows on Radio Perkins or head to the Student Activities Center to play video games with friends. These extracurricular activities are a chance to explore different interests in a social environment, said Dubuque.
“It’s about identifying preferences and knowing what you like to do in your spare time, which is huge for our students,” she said.
Developing hobbies and interests is especially important for students in the Deafblind Program, who occupy three cottages on campus. Many play adapted sports, attend after-school enrichment courses or are part of a local Girl Scout troop.
On a recent afternoon, students in Bradlee Cottage gathered in the sunlit common area for a craft project. Using stencils and fabric paint, they transformed plain white aprons into colorful works of art. Next door, their peers in Potter Cottage took turns measuring ingredients for banana bread, using a combination of sign language and spoken words to communicate.
“We do functional and we do fun,” said Karen Hern, who supervises residential living for the Deafblind Program. “If we do a recreational cooking activity, some students might go grocery shopping for it, others might look up a recipe.”
Throughout all activities, Deafblind Program staffers remain focused on promoting independence among all students, regardless of their level of disability. When David, 13, had trouble folding shirts on his own, his teaching assistant taught him to use a folding board to orient the garment. Now he’s able to complete the chore without assistance, which is Hern’s goal for every student.
“When I hire staff, I’m not looking for someone to take care of our students,” she said. “I’m looking for someone to come in and teach our students to take care of themselves.”
As he eats the dinner he’s prepared for himself, Brian thinks ahead to June, when he’ll be graduating from Perkins. He’s confident he has the skills to live independently after he leaves, even if his family sometimes needs convincing.
“My mom’s a nervous wreck and I’m like, are you kidding me?” he said laughing. “I think I’m ready.”
There are things he’ll miss about his life at Keller-Sullivan Cottage: Carroll and the rest of the staff, his friends and the karaoke club he started several years ago. He plans to keep in touch with classmates through email and social media, but they’ll no longer be sitting on the couch when he gets home after class, ready to laugh at his Jack Nicholson impersonation.
The Brian who will be graduating is very different from the youngster who arrived at Perkins 12 years ago. That Brian relied on adults to cook and serve him meals, and wasn’t always confident navigating campus. Thanks to residential living, he has those skills now, along with many happy memories of his time at Perkins.
“That’s what I want for all our students,” said Dubuque. “I want them to be as self-sufficient as possible but I also want them to look back fondly on their experiences here. We see it with so many of our graduates who come back (to visit Perkins) – this is the place that they remember.”
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