Archive for Monday, July 28, 2003

District lacks Braille-trained teachers

July 28, 2003

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The Lawrence school district doesn't have a teacher who communicates in 11-year-old Mackie Jones' language.

Mackie, who has limited vision and walks with a cane, would not have benefit of a Braille teacher if he enrolled with sixth-grade classmates at New York School.

Neither would any other visually impaired student in the nearly 10,000-student district.

"If this was your child, would you accept this?" said Dena Koehn, Mackie's mother.

District officials said they've been unable to fill the Braille teacher vacancy, and conceded there was little chance a certified instructor capable of handling the language of raised dots on a page could be hired by the time classes start in August.

The district's Braille teacher last year took a job outside Lawrence and a paraprofessional with Braille skills who had worked with Mackie was lost in a wave of budget-driven layoffs.

"Teachers certified, licensed to instruct kids with visual impairments are very, very difficult to find," said Bruce Passman, the Lawrence district administrator in charge of special education. "Finding people in that area is impossible right now. We're really concerned about it."

National shortage

Braille is the most widely accepted system of reading and writing for the blind.

Dena Koehn, right, will take her son Mackie Jones, 11, left, out of
the Lawrence school district and enroll him in the Kansas School
for the Blind in Kansas City, Kan. The Lawrence school district
will have to pay all costs because it cannot meet Mackie's
education needs.

Dena Koehn, right, will take her son Mackie Jones, 11, left, out of the Lawrence school district and enroll him in the Kansas School for the Blind in Kansas City, Kan. The Lawrence school district will have to pay all costs because it cannot meet Mackie's education needs.

However, the national shortage of qualified Braille instructors is profound.

John Stanford, president of the International Organization for the Blind in Mount Dora, Fla., estimated that as many as 5,000 more Braille teachers were needed to educate U.S. students below the age of 21 with a visual impairment.

Passman said district staff had attempted to convince at least two of its teachers to enroll in a Braille certification program at a Nebraska college. The district can receive a waiver from the state to fill the Braille teaching job with an untrained person as long as the individual is enrolled in the two-year Braille certification program, he said.

Tongue in cheek, Mackie said he wouldn't mind having a novice Braille teacher.

"I'd be giving the teacher homework," joked Mackie, who consistently earns As and Bs on his report card.

Koehn isn't amused with the district's staffing woes. The district needs to come to grips with the fact that Braille is just as important to the future of a blind child as print is to a sighted child, she said.

She plans to enroll her son at Kansas School for the Blind in Kansas City, Kan. Mackie goes to summer school there.

Passman said the School for the Blind might not be the best option for all Lawrence students with vision impairment. Transferring to a school in another city moves students away from friends and familiar surroundings, he said.

"We can make things work for kids, but they won't be as good as if we had a person with expertise on staff," he said.

Kathleen Wilson, an advocate with the federally financed Kansas Advocacy and Protective Services, said Mackie's tuition and transportation to the school in Wyandotte County would be paid by the Lawrence school district.

If Lawrence schools are not able to meet Mackie's special-education needs, Wilson said, the district must provide an alternative. Neither teacher shortages nor budget problems can free a district of that responsibility, she said.

"The law clearly states that can't be used to deny a student an appropriate education," she said.

Stiff competition

Passman said it could take years to reverse the national shortage of Braille instructors.

Demand for such teachers has turned the small number available into high-priced free agents, who play the situation to their economic advantage. Some have taken jobs in other states after being offered $10,000 signing bonuses.

"A lot of districts around are battling and competing for the same one or two applicants," Passman said.

Koehn said her son had benefited from solid Braille instruction during his years at East Heights and Centennial schools. Both were closed in May, and Mackie was assigned to New York.

Koehn holds out hope the district can eventually hire a qualified Braille teacher -- if not for Mackie's welfare, she said, then for the benefit of other visually impaired students in the district.

Braille is a series of six raised dots representing letters of the alphabet, numbers, punctuation and symbols for groupings of letters. It is read by moving the hands from left to right along each line.

But to people with a visual impairment, Koehn said, it's much more than a collection of bumps on a page.

Reading and writing in Braille translates to enlightenment and opportunity for people with a visual impairment, she said. For Mackie, who has a genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa, Braille is a ticket to independence.

"Mackie is a bright boy," Koehn said. "He can go to college and achieve."

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