Little Havana program teaches visually impaired, sighted children to work and play together

Nestled in the neighborhood of Little Havana, a group of pre-kindergarten children play, paint and learn the letters of the alphabet in their classroom at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. They gravitate toward different corners of the room and play at different stations, but one little girl who is visually impaired decides she wants to spend her “work time” reading a Braille book assisted by her teacher.

The classroom and pilot program is one of the first offering instruction to both visually impaired and sighted children.

Isabel Chica, director of children’s programs at the school, said the children’s needs are met for all of them at the same time. The classroom at always staffed with two educators, one with experience in early childhood education and the other a teacher of the visually impaired. The needs of the visually impaired students are met on demand, instead of the child having to wait for a certified teacher to travel to the school and service them in a traditional school setting.

The schoolroom has a total of nine students, five who are visually impaired and four who are not. The program underscores inclusion among the students and teaches via the HighScope early childhood education curriculum making everything in the classroom accessible for all the children. Standard print, Braille books, high contrast and large-print books available depending on the kids’ needs.

“The teachers are constantly moving from child to child and making sure that if any child has question or if learning is taking place that she can take that learning to the next level,” Chica said.

Certain lessons are emphasized in the classroom such as the greeting circle, in which the children begin the day by greeting each person by name. Both the sighted and visually impaired children memorize each other’s names and everyone gets to know who is in the room.

Chica said each child is observed on an individual basis, giving the program a chance to reinforce development skills needed by a particular boy or girl. They’re taught social skills, orientation and mobility. Vision needs are addressed, along with travel skills, protective techniques and getting around safely.

Tobi Elden, a teacher of visually impaired children, has been working in her field for over 40 years. Working with these students is her life’s work and it’s about starting with the basics, she said.

“Each student and every experience is special, Elden said. “These children are just starting out and the idea is to start them on the right path, whether they are sighted or visually impaired, that they are given the same exact opportunities as the person next to them.”

The classroom program accepts 3- and 4-year-olds if they are visually impaired. The school is currently building the Lighthouse Learning Center for Children. The new state-of-the-art facility will include five classrooms, two of which will be pre-kindergarten and three that will target infants and toddlers. The current pilot program has a capacity for 15 students.

For children not visually impaired to qualify for subsidies under Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program (VPK), they must be 4 years old on or before Sept. 1.

Virginia A. Jacko, president and CEO of the Lighthouse, is proud of the program’s accomplishments and stands by its success.

“To be named the 2016 Program Of The Year by the Children’s Trust for our Early Intervention Program emphasizes how our early intervention model is successful and building on that model it really positions us to continue that with the pre-K children,” Jacko said.

The pre-K pilot program is in collaboration with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the Early Learning Coalition and is free and open to the community. Visually impaired children are underwritten at the program through the Miami-Dade Schools through the district’s IEP or Individualized Educational Plan. The sighted children would need to qualify for VPK and are funded through that program through the Early Learning Coalition. Student registration is planned for February and the expanded location is expected to be completed by August.

Chica said the program will expand throughout the Miami area. She is happiest that the program exposes children to their peers in an effort to build tolerance as a community.

“I think most beautifully is that the sighted children are around this environment and they’re learning that we do live in a world where there are visually impaired individuals and they do travel with canes and what the red tip symbolizes and what Braille is,” Chica said. “At the same time it’s helping them be more empathetic, and they learn that not everyone reads the way they do and the “stick” as they would call it is a device, and that no one is different. They are all children, they all play and they’re all friends. I think that’s the beauty of inclusion.”

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