As students worked quietly in the classrooms at Saint Lucy’s, Principal Sister Lisa Ann Lettiere walked briskly down the hall towards one of the classrooms in the back of the school.
“There are 40 students in the school,” she said with a smile. “We do something different every day, but today the students are working with a computer program called JAWS.”
Saint Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments was first established in 1955 when children were going blind due to the rubella epidemic. During that time, there was a high population of visually impaired children because of the overuse of oxygen in hospitals to save the lives of babies born prematurely. Parents came together to create a school that not only provided support for the special needs of these children, but also focused on spirituality.
“I pray with my class everyday,” said 9-year-old student Treymir Foreman. “In the morning when everyone’s here, we stand up for prayers, and we pray for us, we pray for someone who’s not here, [and] we pray for someone who’s sick.”
The students learn a variety of different skills including how to read Braille, how to do math through Nemeth code, and how to walk with a cane.
Lettiere had worked as a teacher at Saint Lucy’s for years before becoming principal this past year. She has taught every grade from first grade to eighth. What she loves the most is how kind-hearted these children are.
“They’re so sensitive, they’re so compassionate. They are focused on the things that are really important, and they embrace others with less judgment,” she said. “When they meet people, what they experience is the heart of that other person.”
In 2006, Saint Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments merged with Archbishop Ryan School for the Deaf. Being established in 1912, Archbiship Ryan just celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012. Hearing-impaired students learn by engaging in interactive program on iPads, while teachers also instruct them through sign language and speech.
Patty Sparling is a teacher for the deaf at the combined Saint Lucy/Archbishop Ryan school. She’s been working as an instructor for 10 years. One of the most rewarding parts of being a teacher at this school for Sparling is seeing how the children progress and grow during their time at school.
“It’s amazing to see the progress from not knowing anything, or having very little language, to just blossoming into a child that converses very clearly and concisely,” she said.
While also learning their math, reading and regular curriculum as students, the visually impaired students also are becoming familiar with a computer program called JAWS.
“It talks to the kids, and reads to them everything that is on the screen,” Lettiere said. “There are key commands to facilitate everything we do with a mouse.”
The visually impaired students of Saint Lucy’s also carry a device with them at all times called an Apex. This small portable device has Braille keys on either side of it, and allows the children to have access to the Internet, dictionary, word processing and their email. They can also download their books onto the device.
“It’s like a laptop without the screen,” said 12-year-old student Angelique Hernandez. “You can hook it up to a computer and print out what you wrote in Braille.”
The Apex devices cost $6,000 to $7,000 apiece and are donated to the school by many who believe in the purpose of Saint Lucy’s.
“People are so generous to us,” said Lettiere. “I can’t tell you where half of these people even find us, and so many have been so faithful to us.”
While giving these students the knowledge they need to do well in school and be self-sufficient, Saint Lucy’s staff is also giving these students a safe place to call their home away from home. Students call both their peers and teachers at Saint Lucy’s their family.
“This school is truly a little diamond in the rough, it’s so beautiful,” Sparling said. “Everyone tells their stories, both the blind and the deaf, and you wouldn’t even know there are disabilities. They all come together as a community.”
“This school is always there for us,” said 13-year-old student John Dowling. “If we ever need help, we can always ask for it.”
In the future, Saint Lucy’s plans on using an Internet-based program called HiNet. Through IEPs – individualized education programs – which are generated on the computer, everything will be digitized so they can share information about the students with parents, doctors and therapists. Using HiNet, people who have direct service or responsibilities with a particular child will be able to gain access to all of their information pertaining to how well they are progressing and learning at school.
– Text, images and video by Rhonda Elnaggar