Future Reflections                                                                                                 Fall, 2003

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Making the Tough Choice: The School for the Blind or Not?

by Crystal McClain

Reprinted from the Fall, 2002, issue of the Buckeye Bulletin, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio.

Editor’s Note: The right supports are essential if blind students are to succeed in the regular public school setting. This is especially true in what we often call the “transition years.” It is generally conceded, for example, that the move from elementary school to middle school or junior high is a daunting transition for all students. It never occurred to me, however, that fourth grade might be troublesome. Yet, in this issue we have two articles about two blind girls, in two different states, who experienced the fourth grade as a challenging transition year. However, in Rachel’s school, as described in the article “A Typical School Day in the Life of a Blind Fourth Grader,” enough supports were in place so that Rachel could keep pace with her peers in academics and in personal independence. However, it was a different story for Macy. Here is how her mother tells the story, and describes the difficult decision their family had to make:

Crystal and Macy McClain
Crystal and Macy McClain

Macy started kindergarten in our neighborhood public school. We live in a small town, and Macy was the only blind student the school had ever had. Before she started school, I did everything possible to ensure her success in the public school system. The one statement that I am thankful that I didn’t make was “My child will never go to the Ohio State School for the Blind” (OSSB). I have heard parents make that statement, and I have heard horror stories about public school placements. I am very glad that I learned the lesson about never saying “never”!

As president of the Parents of Blind Children Division of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio, I saw and heard many stories, some good and some bad. A common story goes something like this. A child starts school in his or her local district, and by the time he or she gets to junior high the student is so far behind that the parents have no choice but send their child to the school for the blind. This is not the case with all parents I talk to, but I have found it true in many cases. I decided that was not what I wanted for Macy. I remember saying that, if and when Macy began to fall behind significantly in a school year, I would consider sending her to OSSB. I did not want her to fall into an academic pit.

The time came for Macy and our family when she was in the fourth grade. Those of you who have lived through the fourth grade with your child will testify that it is a significant academic year due to the pressures of the dreaded Fourth-Grade Proficiency Test.

Many factors contributed to the problems that we had in fourth grade. Here are a few I recognized. Macy is not the most intelligent kid in Ohio. That is hard to admit publicly. She struggles academically, and the fast-paced world of the fourth grade and the whole proficiency preparation turned into a nightmare. Macy’s Braille teacher did not have adequate time to spend with her in order for her to succeed in the fourth grade. This next item was a big one for me; Macy did not have all of her materials in correctly-written and formatted Braille in a timely manner. This was especially true in math. Another issue was technology; no one knew enough about the Braille Lite to teach her how to use it. These are the major problems I can identify; I am sure both the school and Macy could point to other things as well.

I want to stress that the problems were not one-sided. There were things that the school could have done better, but I felt that I couldn’t devote my time to attacking the school when Macy was part of the problem. I knew that the most important thing was to get her a quality education. I believe that, for the blind student, going to college is even more important than for a sighted child. A sighted child who doesn’t go to college is much more likely to get a decent job in a factory or business than is a blind child. This is why education is so important to me.

In the early part of the fourth-grade school year, I recognized we had problems. The first thing we did was to have a multi-factored evaluation done at OSSB. Our next step was to take an entire school day and sit in on the third/fourth-grade class at OSSB. We visited in October. We went to music, gym, and technology with the class. We sat through spelling, reading, and math. Macy seemed to be ahead of most of that class academically, and that scared me a little. She was a much more fluent reader than the other kids in the room. Here are some things that I liked:

•  Small class sizes (approximately eight kids per class)

•  A technology class each day with a knowledgeable blind teacher

•  Good Braille everywhere

My concerns were these:

•  The music program was not what I hoped it would be.

•  Lots of students didn’t use canes regularly.

•  I didn’t think the curriculum was at a level comparable with that of public schools.

•  Macy would be a residential student.

Our next move was to visit the cottages. If Macy were going to go to school at OSSB, she would be staying in the cottages. Macy and I drove over after school one day and spent the entire evening. We saw how the house parents dealt with homework, bath time, and other daily routines. We really liked the two women who were in charge of D-1, where Macy would stay.

Since Macy would be going into fifth grade, we visited that class as well. The academic work was at a much higher level in this class. I really liked the teacher and discussed with her my concerns and hopes for Macy. After all of this we made the decision to send Macy to OSSB. We didn’t make a long-term commitment. Basically we said that Macy would go to school at OSSB in the fifth grade but that we would decide later about sixth grade. I can honestly say that I believe we made the right choice.

Fifth grade has gone all right for Macy. She had to adjust to her new school and to the fact that all of the kids there are blind. She loved living in the cottages. We worked out a different arrangement from that used by most families. Most kids went to the school on Sunday afternoon and stayed until Friday afternoon. My best friend lives in Bellefontaine, where we live, and works in Columbus. She took Macy to school on Monday morning in time for breakfast. Then on Wednesday I finished work at 2:00 p.m. and went straight to Columbus. I got there just as school ended. Her dad took her back on Thursday morning, and she then stayed and rode the bus home on Friday afternoon. This arrangement meant that she spent three nights in the cottage instead of the typical five. We liked getting to see her during the week. I have to admit that sometimes she didn’t want to come home. She was too busy having fun with all the evening activities.

I still have concerns for Macy; including the fact that I don’t think she has enough homework. I also noticed that she was really upset that she was totally blind while lots of kids at the school had varying amounts of vision. This was really troublesome for her. However, Macy has made improvements while at the school for the blind. We are all looking forward to a good sixth-grade year.

I hope that other parents of blind kids will be open-minded when they make placement choices. You have many options; choose what works best for your child in your situation right now. Recognize that you are not stuck permanently with one placement choice. You can change settings when you think your child’s needs require a different solution. Good luck, and have a great school year.

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