Perkins itinerant teachers give public school students who are blind the same opportunities as their sighted peers
By BILL WINTER
As Jack makes his way down the hallway at the McCall Middle School in Winchester, Mass., he's got two not-so-secret weapons that help him keep up with his sighted classmates.
The first is his white cane. The seventh-grader, who lost his sight to cancer when he was 10 months old, wields it confidently, tapping his way around corners and past rows of lockers as he heads to his next class.
The other is Christy Thompson. She's Jack's TVI—teacher of the visually impaired—and she works with him up to 14 hours a week. Thompson makes sure Jack has all the resources he needs to succeed in school, whether it's braille copies of his homework assignments or extra help with algebra.
"Mrs. Thompson is the reason I am who I am today," said Jack. "Basically, I would not be able to do as well in school without her."
Jack's mother, Andrea Bloch, agreed. "He would absolutely not be where he is today without Christy. There's no doubt in my mind. She does everything to ensure that Jack succeeds in the public school classroom."
Thompson is an itinerant teacher. She's one of 45 Perkins educators who work with more than 900 babies, children and young adults in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Itinerant teachers are the road warriors of special education. Instead of working in a single classroom, they travel to homes and public schools to provide expertise and specialized teaching services to children with visual impairments.
In Thompson's case, she drives to Winchester five days a week to work with Jack. She's been his TVI since he was in preschool. In fact, Jack has received services from Perkins since he was a toddler, starting soon after he lost his vision and extending now to public school.
"It gave me a lot of peace of mind to know that Perkins could provide such a broad range of services," Jack's mother said.
The same opportunities
At McCall Middle School, Jack attends all the same classes as his sighted peers, and it's Thompson's job to make sure he receives the same opportunities to learn as every other student.
She meets every morning with Jack, a high-spirited boy with an infectious smile and a remarkable vocabulary, to preview the day's lessons. She provides braille copies of classroom handouts, quizzes and homework.
"Whatever he's learning in the classroom, it's being produced for him in tactile format," Thompson said. "Without that, there would be so much he would miss."
Thompson is also Jack's orientation and mobility instructor, teaching him to navigate safely with his white cane.
"She will orient me to get to a new classroom," Jack said. "We also do a lot of outdoor stuff—familiarizing yourself with the area, and being safe while crossing streets."
When not working with Jack, Thompson might be in any one of a dozen other communities. She works with 16 other children who are blind, ranging from infants to a recent high school graduate.
"I have a very varied caseload, and I love it," she said. "I love being with children of all ages, and trying to understand how they perceive the world, and trying to make things accessible to them."
Filling a critical need
Perkins' itinerant teachers fill a critical need at many public schools, said Teri Turgeon, assistant director of Educational Partnerships at Perkins.
"Blindness and low vision is a low- incidence disability," she said. As such, most public schools have only one or two students with visual impairments, and many don't have teachers on staff to provide the specialized resources and support those students need to succeed.
That's why a Perkins TVI can make such a life-changing difference, Turgeon said.
"Our itinerant teachers have 184 years' worth of history, resources and experience behind them," she said. "They can offer services that are unique to the needs of the individual student."
Perkins offers a broad range of community-based services. That includes the Infant-Toddler Program, which supplies in-home assistance to families with newborns who are blind, the Educational Partnership Evaluations, which provides diagnostic assessments of students, and the TVI program that connected Jack and Thompson.
"Our goal is to help every child reach his or her full potential, whether that is in the classroom, in the home or in the community," Turgeon said.
Rising to the challenge
Some students work with the same itinerant teacher for years. Others get a TVI from Perkins for just a few short—but crucial—months.
That's the case with Haylee, a fourth-grader with very low vision who attends Orlo Avenue School in East Providence, R.I. Haylee hides an inquisitive intellect behind her sweet demeanor, and she dreams of one day attending Berklee College of Music.
Her previous TVI, assigned by the local school district, unexpectedly resigned three days before the school year started. The school scrambled, but was unable to find a fulltime replacement. Months passed and Haylee started falling behind in class.
Haylee's mother, Antonia Mota, grew increasingly desperate. She finally met someone who offered a solution: call Perkins. Haylee's school did so, and Perkins TVI Eileen O'Donnell arrived soon afterwards.
"She's like an angel from heaven!" Mota said. "If she didn't come from Perkins to work with Haylee, I didn't know what I was going to do."
O'Donnell, who works with 15 other children who are blind, from babies to teenagers, said it was unusual to suddenly get a new student in the middle of the school year.
"It was a challenging situation," she acknowledged. "But Haylee is such a bright student that she made it less of a challenge."
O'Donnell worked with Haylee for the rest of the school year, making sure the youngster had accessible classroom materials. She also helped Haylee sharpen her braille reading skills and attended Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings with Haylee's mother and her teachers.
"She tries to do everything that she can for Haylee," said Mota. "I think if Mrs. O'Donnell hadn't been there, my daughter would have had to stay behind this year."
Early birds get the algebra
Back at the McCall Middle School, Jack works with his TVI on what he admits is his toughest subject—algebra.
On a typical morning, Jack and Thompson arrive early, before school starts. "She'll be there at the crack of dawn, basically, with the roosters," Jack said. "She and I are the early birds, so we get the worm, or, in other words, we get algebra!"
In a small room crowded with tables and computer equipment, Thompson calls out algebra problems from a workbook, and Jack pounds out answers on his Perkins Brailler®. He types in a special braille code for mathematics, and then reads his answer aloud.
Jack gets most of the problems right. When his computations go awry, Thompson explains the error and he cheerfully corrects his answer.
Jack doesn't necessarily enjoy this trip to what he calls "algebra-land," but he knows he needs to master mathematics to go to college and eventually get a job. He's thought about becoming a doctor, teacher or lawyer. Or maybe finding a job that allows him to work with dogs.
Whatever Jack's future holds, the support and encouragement he receives from Thompson will help prepare him for it.
"Without Perkins, I would just not have had all the opportunities everybody else has to be able to understand and to learn," he said. "Perkins and the wonderful TVIs have truly been able to transform my life."