Legislators visit 'inspirational' Perkins classrooms

State policymakers, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo, came to Perkins to observe firsthand the life-changing power of special education

Robert DeLeo sits with a student using a braille notetaker

House Speaker Robert DeLeo got a lesson in assistive technology from Secondary Program student Zach during Legislators’ Day at Perkins. Photo Credit: Dave Gordon.

March 2, 2016

It’s one thing to hear about how Perkins School for the Blind educates students with visual impairment. It’s quite another thing to see it firsthand.

That’s what two dozen state legislators from across the commonwealth discovered when they visited Perkins on March 1. They watched students build a tactile model of a cell in science class, observed the Student Council in action and heard parents talk about how Perkins has given hope to their families.

“It’s inspirational,” said Walter Timilty, state representative for Milton and Randolph. “The approaches and techniques are different, but the students here are learning at a high level just like students in public schools. It’s a great source of pride for the entire commonwealth to have an institution like Perkins.”

The visit was part of Invite Your Legislator to School Day, a national initiative to encourage state policymakers to personally visit special education schools and see how they serve diverse learning populations.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo was among the Beacon Hill visitors. He dropped by a meeting of the Perkins Student Council and chatted with its president, 17-year-old Robert, about his future ambitions. The visit was a welcome departure from his normal day-to-day activities, DeLeo said.

“I love the opportunity to see firsthand exactly what goes on, how taxes are being spent,” he said. “When I hear stories like [Robert’s] it makes you realize how much a school like this can mean, not only to students but to people across the commonwealth. It’s money well spent.”

Some Perkins students had a chance to connect with a legislator from their hometown, including Joey, 9, who shook hands with State Representative Michelle DuBois of Brockton. DuBois thanked Joey for sending her a personal invitation to visit Perkins.

“I’m so glad you wrote me a letter, otherwise I might not have come,” she said. “That’s advocacy, right there.”

When welcoming legislators to the school, Perkins President and CEO Dave Power joined Jim Major, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools (maaps), in urging lawmakers to support funding for special education schools.

“State funding is critical,” he said. “The financial reality of Perkins, like all the maaps schools, is that tuition does not cover the full cost of education.”

Power encouraged legislators to visit classrooms and see Perkins educators in action.

State Rep. Timilty joined teacher Kate Fraser and her students for a lesson on cell biology. After running their fingers over tactile cell models, students built their own using plastic sandwich bags, gelatin, marbles and playdough.

“The best science teaching is hands-on teaching,” explained Fraser. “That’s what we do – everything is hands on. And if it works for a kid who is visually impaired, it works for everybody.”

Parent Cara Coller relies on both Perkins and the Watertown Public Schools to educate her three children, two of whom have special needs. Her daughter Isabella, 9, was a different person before enrolling at Perkins, she said.  

“She could not learn, she could not read, she could barely talk,” Coller said. “She was a 2- or 3-year-old trapped in this 9-year-old body and now she is finding her way. I’m so beyond grateful for what Massachusetts, Watertown and Perkins have offered my entire family.”

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