Celebrating ‘diversity of instruction’ at Clarke

As featured in the East Meadow Herald

Separate but equal. Echoed throughout the public education school system for decades, this philosophy has denied several students access to educational opportunities based on their perceived differences — from race to physical impairments.

At W. Tresper Clarke High School, the East Meadow School District is taking a unique approach to differences with an educational culture that reflects and accommodates diversity.

The schools provide an education to its blind and visually impaired population with a wide range of vision services including assistive technology assessments, orientation and mobility training and educational support with special education teachers. Blind and visually impaired students also have access to the same core curriculum as their sighted peers, but with modifications and accommodations. Tactile graphics, computer software and Braille materials are just a few of the adaptations that students receive.

The educational setting that Clarke offers vastly differs from public education 50 years ago. In previous generations, blind and visually impaired students were confined to special institutions, isolated from their sighted peers. Without the appropriate social and academic skills, visually impaired students were ill prepared for the adult world.

At Clarke, special education teachers work together with their general education colleagues in providing access to the curriculum for their students on areas such as transcribing materials, using a SMART board and even how to set up an environmentally friendly classroom. These practices help the students thrive in mainstream classroom settings.

“We provide what every child needs to be successful,” said Patrice Dobies, director of special education and pupil personnel services for the East Meadow School District. “Every child has something special to bring to the classroom and our job is to help our students access the curriculum to learn.”

As a way to celebrate the achievements of blind and visually impaired students, Clarke has hosted the Braille Challenge for the past three years. It is the only public high school in the nation to hold the event.

The Braille Challenge includes a series of exams that allow blind and visually impaired students to practice their skills in comprehension, speed and accuracy, proofreading, spelling and graph reading. More importantly, the contest strives to promote the importance of Braille literacy.

Braille instruction has become almost obsolete over the past few decades. Only 10 percent of legally blind children are learning Braille in school, according to the National Federation for the Blind (NFB). Advances in technology and special education teacher shortages are just a few of the rationales for its decrease in use.  The decline has resulted in a rising number of legally blind individuals who are illiterate and unable to function independently. NFB studies show that while only 30 percent of legally blind and visually impaired people are employed, 80 percent of those who have jobs are Braille readers.

“Braille literacy helps level the playing field,” said Dr. Sheila Amato, a national expert on Braille and a university teacher trainer. With Braille, Amato said, children with visual impairments can participate in state exams, gain independence, and achieve the same academic success as their sighted counterparts. Amato retired last year as a teacher for the blind and visually impaired for the East Meadow School District.

Residents, parents, teachers and students from the tri-state area will gather at Clarke on Saturday for the district’s fourth annual Braille Challenge. The competition began as a way for the district to pay it forward and has evolved into a community-wide learning movement for blind and visually impaired students.

Petra Tarrant, the district’s lead teacher for the blind and visually impaired, is coordinating this year’s Challenge.

Since its inception at Clarke, a student from the East Meadow School District Regional Competition has advanced to the national competition in Los Angeles. The Braille Challenge, the only reading and writing contest for students who are visually impaired, attracts hundreds of attendees, blind and sighted alike.

“The Braille Challenge is a celebration of literacy for Braille readers and writers,” Dobies said. “It’s a fun day to rejoice in learning, accept rigorous academic challenges and celebrate diversity of instruction.”

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