Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 06 April 2010 18:25
Like most of his classmates, the 8-year-old navigates the hallways of Goessel Elementary School these days with confidence. He knows the way to his classroom, the lunch room, the restroom and the gymnasium, where he particularly likes the rock-climbing wall. He enjoys recess.
Roy is doing well in the classroom, too. He’s inquisitive, a fast learner and obviously intelligent at the rate he learns new words and works with math. He especially likes music.
“It’s been really rewarding to see how aware they are of each other because they’re kind of watching out for each other in ways I haven’t seen in other classes,” says his homeroom teacher, Barb Goering.
And she’s been teaching first grade for 22 years, by the way.
Roy Blosser in so many ways is a normal first-grader. But he does have one additional challenge.
Roy lives without sight.
Born three months premature, Roy weighed 1 pound, 3 ounces when he entered the world in October 2001. Unfortunately, he entered it with retinopathy of prematurity, an eye disease that affects prematurely born babies.
That Roy functions as a typical first-grader today is a credit not only to his spirit and determination, but to the acceptance and assistance he has received from home, the school system, the entire Goessel community, and especially the services of Marion County Special Education Cooperative.
You could say it’s taken a village to raise Roy to this point.
Susan Levra-Wallace first met Roy when he was 4 months old and living in Harvey County. Levra-Wallace, a teacher of the visually impaired with MCSEC, was contracted to serve in Harvey County, too. She’s been leading “Roy’s team” ever since.
“When I first met Roy, he wore glasses, and he did have some vision,” she said. “He had a visually directed reach at that time and could pick Cheerios up off of his tray. We had great hope the vision would continue.”
But it didn’t.
When Roy and his mother, Sarita Blosser, moved to Goessel two years ago, Levra-Wallace could continue working with Roy in “home territory.”
Progress to help him become a Braille reader was slow at first.
“I was going to read him a book, and he’d scream and he’d cry,” Levra-Wallace said. “Now he’s reading the books.
“He loves books,” she added. “He can tell you the name of the book and the author, and he wants to know the illustrator. He holds the book up real close to his face; I believe he can see shadows, and he likes to see things if he can.”
The progress Roy has made has confirmed his mother’s decision to move to Goessel.
“I thought he could do a lot better in this school,” Blosser says now. “I’ve seen him grow a lot better here than he would have at another school district.”
Under Levra-Wallace’s direction, Roy receives a variety of vision services through MCSEC, including an expanded core curriculum for the visually impaired, instruction in Braille and in technology, orientation and mobility, daily living skills, activities and Nemeth Code, which is the math part of Braille.
“He is learning that curriculum as well as learning the regular education curriculum,” Levra-Wallace said, meaning that Roy’s learning load is probably double compared to his classmates—and pursued without the aid of sight, of course.
“Roy’s world is Braille and tactile and auditory,” Levra-Wallace said. “He’s made great gains.”
But working in Braille adds significantly to the cost of education.
For example, while his classmates have one math book, Roy requires seven volumes to cover the same material. A simple children’s dictionary is 10 volumes, and the pocket Bible he received is 34 volumes.
Supplemental classroom materials are often prepared by hand, which requires extra staff time.
“The co-op is behind me 100 percent in doing what I need to do to meet his needs,” Levra-Wallace said. “I always want him to be treated fairly. I don’t want special services, I want equal.
“That’s really what we want for all of our special-needs kids—to be equal. And we need to put into place what he needs to keep him on that playing field.”
Helping to make that more affordable is the Kansas State School for the Blind in Kansas City. It offers books and other resources to be “checked out” to the MCSEC and then returned when no longer needed.
“A Braille writer (similar to a traditional typewriter) is about $1,000 a piece, but they are on loan from the State School for the Blind,” she cited as an example.
In turn, when Levra-Wallace pays for resources she can’t get elsewhere, she eventually will donate them to the state school for use.
Levra-Wallace is in the Goessel school two days a week to interact with Roy and direct his learning plan. Vickie Unrau, a paraprofessional through MCSEC, is with Roy daily.
“Probably my biggest job is to make sure he has what he needs in order to be in the classroom,” Unrau said, including preparing some materials in Braille.
She also works one-on-one for part of the day in a room away from Barb Goering’s first-grade classroom. It’s where the hard work of sight-impaired learning occurs.
“There’s just a lot for him to learn, so that’s why we have some pull-out time, to teach him all those things,” Unrau said.
The learning, for Roy, is not marked with frequent and dramatic breakthroughs.
“Being with him every day, it usually takes Susan to tell me how much progress he has made,” Unrau said with a smile. “I’m with him every day and I don’t always see it. But he has made tremendous strides. He is a great kid and a lot of fun.”
In Goering’s classroom, Roy has a desk, equipped with a Braille writer, in the back row near the outside aisle to make walking to different learning stations easier to navigate.
The biggest difference Roy’s presence makes in the classroom is an increased sensitivity among her students, according to Goering.
“The students are more aware of each other and especially of what (Roy’s) needs are,” she said.
For example, students have picked up on Goering’s effort to describe the visual images she uses in class, for Roy’s sake.
“They do a lot more explaining during show-and-tell time,” she said. “They will always give him a show-and-tell to feel. Some students picked up on that right away.
“At recess, they are always watching out for him, and some of them will wait and help him get to where he wants to play,” Goering added. “Sometimes he requests to play with a certain person.”
As for her own learning curve working with a vision-impaired student, Goering said, “It has made me aware how visual the classroom is. I’ve had to learn how to teach in a different way.
“There are some things I?do when Roy isn’t in (the classroom) because they’re so visual,” she said. “I don’t want to do them when he’s in the room because it just isn’t fair to him.
“It has definitely stretched my learning style.”
Roy has been a teacher, too.
“Having Roy in the classroom has helped the students learn to appreciate students with disabilities,” Goering said. “They’re not so afraid of approaching somebody with a disability—and I think that’s really been a gift.”
Watching the learning process as elementary school principal and district superintendent, John Fast sometimes marvels at what he observes.
“We have an outstanding team, and that includes everyone,” Fast said. “They’re offering life skills that will help him sustain himself in the world beyond school.
“What they’re doing is helping him become independent, and they’re also helping other students understand what it’s like to have a handicap like this, and how we can be of assistance to him.
“We have to accept the fact that we can help him live as normal a life as possible.”
Fast especially is grateful for the assistance and service provided though MCSEC.
“It would be extremely difficult for Goessel to do this on its own, being a small district,” he said. “Having a cooperative enables us to work together and share resources.
“We cannot afford a vision-impaired specialist like Susan Levra-Wallace, a full-time aide like Vickie Unrau. But together we can have this kind of expertise as a shared resource.”
As the person who spends the most hours with Roy in school, Unrau said the experience has changed her, too.
“What I have learned through this is that people with handicaps are very similar, if not the same, as normal people,” she said. “They just have something else in their life to deal with.
“A lot of these kids, given services, can do something with their lives, depending on the disability,” Unrau added. “Roy, I think, can do anything he chooses to do. But it’s been because he’s had these services. They are important.”