Paying It Forward

Perkins changed the life of 1964 alumna Roz Rowley. Fifty years later, this pioneering educator is transforming her own students

Teacher sitting at her desk in front of a brailler

Rowley has made a commitment to literacy for students with visual impairments.

Hanging on the wall in the Howe gymnasium is a black and white photo of Perkins’ 1963-1964 cheerleading squad. A group of six young women in crisp collared shirts and pleated jumpers beam as they form a human pyramid. Among them is 18-year-old Rosalind “Roz” Rowley – known at the time as Rozzy Silverman – smiling broadly as she bolsters her teammates on her back.

“We were all good buddies,” Rowley says with a grin. “Our class was really close.”

Rowley has kept in touch with many of her classmates over the decades, and she is stepping up to help coordinate their class’s 50th alumni reunion this spring.

“I’m looking forward to everyone getting together, reminiscing about the good ol’ days and what we used to get away with!” she says with a giggle that makes her sound like a teenager again.

Rowley transferred to Perkins during her junior year of high school. In public school, she had become frustrated standing on the sidelines in gym class, or waiting for tutors to teach her material that couldn’t be provided in braille. She wanted to get more out of life and learning, and was convinced Perkins was the answer.

“Coming to Perkins was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Rowley. “It changed my life.”

While a student at Perkins, Rowley says she transformed from a shy, timid girl to the driven and fun-loving woman she is today. She took on every challenge and activity she could fit into her schedule. Glee club. Track and field. Chorus. Drama club. She was a leader as the vice-president of her senior class, and co-captain of her cheering squad. Not to mention her stint as editor of “Echoes,” the student literary magazine.

After Perkins, Rowley earned a master’s degree from Boston College, specializing in teaching students who are blind. In 1970, Rowley walked the Perkins corridors again, but this time as a teacher.

“It felt like I was back at home and had come full circle,” says Rowley. Her former teachers became colleagues and graciously took her under their wings, she says, instilling in her the confidence and know-how she needed to help her students succeed academically.

More than 40 years later, Rowley continues to teach at Perkins and is recognized as an innovative educator in her field. She was named the 2010 Teacher of the Year by the Braille Institute of America for her work teaching literacy skills to students who have learning challenges.

“I love to read,” says Rowley. “So when I see that someone can’t read, it makes me want to do something about it.”

One of those students was Stephen, a 19-year-old who was blind and had a severe form of dyslexia. His former teachers believed he would never be able to read or write, but Rowley knew it was only a matter of finding the right curriculum.

Her solution was the Wilson Reading System, a multi-sensory program that simplifies the process of learning to read into more manageable, sequential steps. But there was one problem: the program didn’t exist in braille or large-type.

Rowley decided to do something about it. She and her colleagues dove headfirst into adapting the program to meet the needs of students who are blind or visually impaired. After working with Rowley and the adapted Wilson system for a few years, Stephen was transformed. He went from being unable to read or write to class valedictorian. At graduation, standing at the podium in cap and gown, he read a braille copy of a speech he wrote.

“That was one of the proudest moments as a teacher,” says Rowley, who sat in the audience that day. “It was the greatest treasure to give him the gift to read.”

But Rowley wasn’t satisfied helping just one student learn to read. She wanted every student across the U.S. to have access to literacy materials that could unlock their potential. She and her colleagues spent nearly a decade adapting a portion of the Wilson Reading System for students with visual impairments, and those materials will soon be distributed nationally.

“It will help many more children and young adults, like Stephen, who are struggling readers,” says Rowley. She flashes that broad smile. “Getting this published will help kids all across the country – and I can’t retire until then!”